Professionals in crisis communication will be talking about this interview for years. Watch the clip. (It’s excruciating.) Read my analysis, which won’t capture everything. Then add your observations in the comments.
Andrea Mitchell of NBC News interviews Nancy Brinker, CEO and founder of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation, about the foundation’s decision to stop funding Planned Parenthood’s breast cancer screening programs:
Brinker was completely unprepared for this interview. She was placed in a situation that she seemed not to understand. Her estimation of her ability to re-describe an event that began two days earlier was wildly off base. To the degree that she had one, her message might be summarized as: “Forget what we said earlier, ignore what’s happening out there, for this is what I am saying now.” From her first words (“It’s a mischaracterization of our goals, our mission…”) Brinker communicated that she did not understand the forces that had brought her to MSNBC’s studios and put her in that chair opposite Andrea Mitchell.
I mean this literally: Brinker did not know what she was doing there. She thought she was going on air to correct some misbegotten story line that an excitable press, the wounded executives at Planned Parenthood and ideologues in the pro-choice movement had cooked up. In her delusional state, the decision had nothing to do with the politics of abortion. Nothing! The reality was that a board member from her own organization had told the press that it did:
John D. Raffaelli, a Komen board member and Washington lobbyist, said Wednesday that the decision to cut off money to 17 of the 19 Planned Parenthood affiliates it had supported was made because of the fear that an investigation of Planned Parenthood by Representative Cliff Stearns, Republican of Florida, would damage Komen’s credibility with donors.
The organization’s longtime support of Planned Parenthood had already cost it some support from anti-abortion forces, Mr. Raffaelli said. But the board feared that charges that Komen supported organizations under federal investigation for financial improprieties could take a further and unacceptable toll on donations, he said. “People don’t understand that a Congressional investigation doesn’t necessarily mean a problem of substance,” Mr. Raffaelli said. “When people read about it in places like Texarkana, Tex., where I’m from, it sounds really bad.”
When Andrea Mitchell asked about these facts, Brinker declined to discuss them and tried to shift the terrain to other problems that (she said) the foundation had with Planned Parenthood’s programs. It was extremely difficult to parse what these other problems were, but they appeared to be: it was hard to measure the effectiveness of Planned Parenthood’s work, the foundation wants to fund direct delivery of services but Planned Parenthood doesn’t do that, and something about “translate,” a word that she kept coming back to–often in proximity to another term, “mission”–without managing to complete a thought: translate something into something, and Planned Parenthood… well, no. For example:
This is about the restructure of our grant program. Now as an NGO and as a leader in the breast cancer space, we have an obligation to the community we serve, to donors and to this country to translate cancer care in the way we know how.
The recurrence of certain “life raft” words, often used ungrammatically or in extremely awkward ways–translate, mission, excellence, measure, outcome–suggests that Brinker was provided with talking points that were supposed to function as a magic switch. But she couldn’t actually make the switch happen in English, so she fell back on the words, as if brute repetition of the words could summon the magic, which of course wasn’t magical at all but simply the substitution of cheery or harmless talking points for what was actually happening outside the studio.
Meanwhile, she seemed captive to another delusion… about Andrea Mitchell. In Brinker’s mind, Mitchell was someone she knew and could trust, a survivor of breast cancer herself, a supporter of the Foundation, a prominent person who had participated in its events. The two of them knew each other from Brinker’s earlier career as an ambassador. (Mitchell covered the State Department for NBC.) Andrea would understand that Nancy would never do anything to undermine the cause they both believed in so deeply. I don’t know for sure, of course, but it’s likely that logic like this was behind the “get,” the broadcast journalist’s term for landing the big interview that everyone wants.
Brinker seemed to approach Mitchell as “one of us,” a sympathetic ear who of course had a job to do but someone who also held the mission–fighting breast cancer–sacred. Herself a survivor! But Brinker never considered that this could cut two ways. Mitchell’s enormous stake in the work of the Foundation could incline her to sympathy for Brinker’s position. It’s plausible. But it could just as easily place her among the millions of women enraged that the Foundation had somehow stumbled into the politics of abortion without a clue as to what might happen if it cut off funding for Planned Parenthood. Equally plausible. A shrewd executive, well briefed, would understand that.
Shortly after the interview began, Mitchell threw her cards on the table. She identified herself as a survivor, as a supporter of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, as a friend to Brinker’s cause. In an extraordinary breach of norms that require a dispassionate pose from network television reporters, Mitchell also said she was “channelling” the anger of women who simply could not believe the mess that Brinker and her board had made.
In an instant the interview was transformed into a conversation among intimates, which happened to be on television.
Mitchell was saying, in so many words, how could you do this? That’s what people want to know! What were you thinking? She was also trying to communicate across the set on a more human level–self-aware woman to self-aware woman, if I may say so–and without the pretense of professional detachment. (Which says: You stay in your role and I’ll stay in mine.) Brinker was unable to process this shift in emotional temperature. She reacted as if it never happened, even though viewers could see it happen, which gave her replies a zombie-like quality.
When Mitchell asked about the uproar that was then unfolding online, which threatened to do mortal damage to Susan G. Komen’s “brand” (a fact confirmed by the Foundation’s quasi-apology the next day) Brinker zoned out:
All I can tell you is that the responses we are getting are very very favorable. People who have bothered to read the material, who have bothered to understand the issues. Again we work from mission.
For me, the most bizarre moment in the interview. Was Brinker trying to suggest that an explosion of support for “metrics” and “outcomes” and “direct delivery of services” (according to her, the real reasons for the decision…) had come pouring into her offices? Was she trying to deny that her pro-choice supporters were deeply angry and gathering their forces? Was she unaware that whatever praise Susan G. Komen was getting was itself highly politicized, an artifact of pro-life politics? Did she not know about the resignations? Was she some kind of current events idiot?
I said earlier that Brinker did not seem to grasp what she was doing there. She thought she was there to de-excite everyone and persuade us that what was happening online and outside MSNBC studios was a sort of fictive event, a reaction to decisions untaken. But this made her a universe of one, and thus impossible to identify with. In reality, she was there to answer Mitchell’s initial question: “How could this have taken place?” …where “this” means:
The disease doesn’t know from politics. It strikes down women no matter how they vote. The Foundation used to be about that. Now it no longer is. Susan G. Komen For The Cure has somehow thrust itself into the politics of abortion. How could this happen? Who is responsible? What in the world were you thinking?
The fractured syntax, the thoughts that do not connect, the zombie-like performance, the whole train wreck that this interview became: I think it all originates in a lie the house bought about itself. We don’t do politics. Miraculously, such a statement might have been true at one time. But when the board took the decision to cut off Planned Parenthood it ceased to be true. What if Susan G. Komen lied to itself about that fateful moment? What if the Foundation sent Nancy Brinker out there, not to explain its decision but to project that lie, no matter what?
NBC’s Andrea Mitchell was the receiver. If it had been a State Department decision, she might have reacted more cooly and allowed the deception to air with merely a raised eyebrow or a skeptical question. But this was personal. Far more real to her. Intimate and painful. The anger she said she was channelling had to be some of her own. In effect, then, Nancy Brinker’s deluded responses tried to erase Andrea Mitchell and what she knew in her bones. Mitchell would not allow that. As crisis communication, it only deepened the crisis.
That’s what I saw when I watched the interview. Now what did you see?