Unable to extinguish a firestorm of protest among some of its customers and gay rights supporters, Target Corp. on Thursday took the unusual step of apologizing for making a political donation.

CEO Gregg Steinhafel sent a message to company leaders saying he was "genuinely sorry" that the donation had disappointed some. The message was posted on the company's Intranet, making it available to all employees.

Minneapolis-based Target had tried for days to emphasize that the $150,000 donation to MN Forward, a pro-business group backing Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer, was based solely on a tax and jobs platform. But because of Emmer's stance against gay marriage, many perceived the donation as flying in the face of Target's longstanding commitment to workplace equality.

A Facebook page calling for a Target boycott has grown to more than 44,000 fans. The Washington, D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights organization, condemned Target as well as Best Buy, which contributed $100,000 to MN Forward.

MoveOn.org, a liberal political action group, circulated its own petition aimed at collecting 150,000 signatures, and YouTube videos circulated of people cutting up their cards in Target stores.

"While I firmly believe that a business climate conducive to growth is critical to our future, I realize our decision affected many of you in a way I did not anticipate, and for that I am genuinely sorry," Steinhafel wrote.

A new era of business

While the apology could put an end to what Heather LaMarre, a University of Minnesota assistant journalism professor, called "a PR nightmare," it could also signal the beginning of a combustible new era of corporate decisionmaking.

The recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allowed direct corporate political contributions makes it possible for Target and others to wield greater influence. But mixing business and politics in the age of social media can also bring a bruising backlash.

"The CEO and the decisionmaking team didn't really do anything wrong -- according to the 1990s business model. They were looking out for the business interests of their stakeholders and investors," LaMarre said. "But they have not moved into the new reality, where social responsibilities and corporate values meet.''

Ten years ago, the same situation would have played out as "some upset, disgruntled employees talking around a water cooler. Maybe somebody would have been able to get an op-ed piece into the local newspaper, and that's as far as it would have gone," LaMarre said.

While MN Forward, created by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and the Minnesota Business Partnership, has raked in $700,000 from Minnesota companies, including Best Buy, Regis Corp., Polaris, Securian and Hubbard Broadcasting, Target got to be the canary in the coal mine.

Emmer spokesman Bill Walsh said the flap has distracted the public from the issues: "The whole election in Minnesota is about jobs and the economy. That's what MN Forward's been talking about. I think that's why Target donated money to the effort."

Brian McClung, director of MN Forward and a former top aide to Gov. Tim Pawlenty, reiterated that the group will support candidates of any stripe who line up with it on jobs, taxes and the economy.

"What we'll spend on this election will be dwarfed by the millions of dollars labor unions and other progressive special interests who want to raise taxes and grow government" will spend, McClung said in an e-mail. "We all lose when activists think they can shut down legitimate speech they disagree with."

At Best Buy, reaction from employees and the public to its donation has been vocal, but nothing like the Target backlash.

Still, Best Buy CEO Brian Dunn said on his blog to employees that he's listening to feedback. "In our quest to focus on jobs and the economy, we've disappointed and confused some employees and customers,'' he said. "I'm taking it to heart."

New process for donations

Steinhafel said Target, the nation's second-largest discounter, would set up a decisionmaking process for future political donations.

Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese was critical, saying in a statement he wants more details on how that process would work.

Monica Meyer of OutFront Minnesota, the group whose protest letter to Steinhafel went viral, said she appreciated the apology -- to a point.

"It's very powerful to hear someone say, 'I'm sorry,'" she said. "It's a good step forward. But people are still waiting. People love Target and ... say they miss shopping there. That speaks to the loyalty.

"But the flip side of the coin is that people feel amazingly betrayed."

Jackie Crosby • 612-673-7335