They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and author and philanthropist Greg Mortenson can speak to that. Mortenson broke a three-year silence with an interview on the Today Show to apologize for mishandling charity funds and answer charges that he fabricated parts of his bestselling memoir, Three Cups of Tea.
In the book, Mortenson describes how a failed attempt to climb K2, one of the world’s tallest mountains, put him in danger of exposure and capture by the Taliban. His rescue by Afghan and Pakistani villagers was repaid with a promise to build schools in the area.
Three Cups of Tea spent four years on bestseller lists. Mortenson was nominated twice for a Nobel Peace Prize and given millions for his charity. Among the donors was Jon Krakauer, a mountaineering expert and author. Over time he questioned Mortenson about distribution of the charity’s funds. The answers prompted Krakauer to write an exposé entitled Three Cups of Deceit, and for Sixty Minutes to report that Mortenson mishandled donation money and fabricated parts of his book.
“I let a lot of people down,” Mortenson told Tom Brokaw. He also, in “maybe a strange, ironic way” thanked Krakauer and Sixty Minutes. “Had they not brought these issues up, we could have gotten into more serious problems.” A humble mea culpa, yet Mortenson still faces a steep climb.
THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for Greg Mortenson.
THE PR TAKEAWAY: Explanations can wait, apologies can’t. This is the first apology donors have heard in the three years since Mortenson was ordered to repay $1 million to his own foundation and step down from its board. Explanations and finger-pointing can come down the road, but a delayed apology sounds less sincere with every passing moment. For Mortenson’s deceived and disappointed donors, it was a long wait that yielded less then three cups of contrition.