Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Komen's Bad PR Decision

It's not breaking news anymore, but since it's still a major topic of discussion in my household, let's talk about the Susan G. Komen (For the Cure™) Foundation and the defunding of Planned Parenthood debacle.

Komen describes its work as:
Today, Komen for the Cure is the world’s largest grassroots network of breast cancer survivors and activists fighting to save lives, empower people, ensure quality care for all and energize science to find the cures. Thanks to events like the Komen Race for the Cure, we have invested more than $1.9 billion to fulfill our promise, becoming the largest source of nonprofit funds dedicated to the fight against breast cancer in the world.
As part of that work, Komen grants funding for research and prevention, including "Community Health and Outreach":
Our community health grants ensure quality care for all by funding breast cancer education, screening and treatment projects for those who need them most. Through community needs assessments, more than 75,000 volunteers working through local Affiliates identify unmet needs in their communities and provide Affiliate community health grants to fill these gaps. Komen’s Global Headquarters also administers the National Capital Area Grants Program to address breast cancer disparities in the medically underserved in the capital area. And to ensure quality care and access around the global, our Susan G. Komen for the Cure Global Promise Fund works with local communities and International organizations to develop innovative education and outreach programs.
As part of those screening projects, Komen provided funding to Planned Parenthood to provide breast cancer screening. PP is often a resource for low-income women without access to regular health care. And cancer screenings make up about 16% of what Planned Parenthood does:

Recently, Komen decided to not fund grants to any group under investigation by "local, state, or federal governments." This included Planned Parenthood, under investigation by Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., who is "seeking to determine whether public money was improperly spent on abortions."

Planned Parenthood was temporarily blindsided by the defunding move, and then the Internet began to rally around the cause of providing cancer screenings to women in need. Soon, the anti-abortion stance of a VP at Komen emerged. Karen Handel, it was alleged, designed the new rule in order to exclude Planned Parenthood from receiving funding because the group also provides abortion services (a mere 3% of PP's output).

After major outrage across the Internet and among donors:

Why Komen Yanked PP's Funding - Delusions of Grandeur
Komen's PP Decision: Seems Like it Was About Abortion - Mother Jones
Komen Decision Results in Spike in Donations to PP - Washington Post

Komen decided to apologize. And reinstate funding. And accept Karen Handel's resignation.

Time for a small disclaimer: I have never supported the Komen Foundation, and never given it any money. Mostly my perception of the Komen Foundation has been as a purveyor of Pink Kitsch:

Yours for only $20!  Not smartphone compatible.
However, I think it's important to respect an organization that provides funding for cancer research and screenings, and generally works to prevent and cure cancer. It's a lofty goal, and I respect that.

Looking at the Komen incident from the perspective of a marketer, there are multiple mistakes to consider here. Leaving aside the political arguments, there are some valuable lessons to learn in terms of public relations:

Never underestimate the power of the Internet, particularly social media sharing. In the digital age, it only takes a few clicks or a copy and paste command to share bad news. And we all know that people are far more likely to share a bad story than a good one. Combine that with auto-sharing, auto-tweeting, and you have a massive echo chamber to contend with. Consider about how your audience will perceive your action and how they will react. 

Know your audience, and  know your industry's audience. Certainly Komen knows its customers, donors, patients, and researchers. Any good foundation will know the position of its stakeholders. But when you consider that Komen is in the business of providing health services to women (industry grouping), it's astounding that the foundation didn't realize that it was also in the same industry as Planned Parenthood. They're not competitors, but they serve an overlapping audience. You have to consider if you are going to make a radical change that affects a stakeholder (PP), you need to consider how that will affect your supporters who also support that stakeholder.  

This video neatly encapsulates both these points:

Be transparent in your governance, and stick to your principles. People can find all kinds of information about your organization these days, so if you make a radical shift, don't make up a silly cover story. If Karen Handel honestly wanted to defund PP because it provides abortion services, she should say so. She should stand up for her anti-abortion stance and be honest. No one, especially donors, likes to be lied to. Once you've obsfucated, it's ridiculously difficult to re-earn the trust of the public. But additionally, the Komen foundation should stick to its principles of serving people in need, providing breast cancer screenings. Moving away from its original principles and lying about it will keep the Komen foundation in the doghouse for a while.

Be alert and be prepared. The real winner in this showdown is Planned Parenthood. By playing off this issue, it's pulled in a lot of funding, including a $250,000 match grant from Mayor Bloomberg plus $100,000 from the anti-cancer LiveStrong group. PP used its vast network to spread the word of the defunding to give itself a back up plan to continue to provide cancer screenings, a key service it provides.

 Do you think Komen can recover? I'd like to see a major retooling of its organizational structure, including ditching the pink kitsch.