Lessons From Komen Foundation’s Very Bad Week

My lord what a slo-mo train wreck! How else to describe this week’s unfolding Susan G. Komen Foundation saga? The fallout from the organization’s decision and subsequent reversal to cut funding Planned Parenthood continues (especially with the most recent revelations about Komen’s much heftier donation to Penn State, where the words “under investigation” take on a whole new meaning). These two blog posts by Shonali Burke and Kivi Leroux Miller, easily the best I’ve seen in the last couple of days, pretty much say it all. I particularly love Burke’s blog post title – 7 PR Lessons Komen for the Cure Didn’t Know It Was Giving you. Indeed! But if you can possibly stand a couple more thoughts on the subject ….

Komen’s handling – or rather lack thereof at the outset then compounded by very poor handling when their communications finally woke up – drives home three things I always tell clients about a basic communications strategy:

Tell Your Story First Or Someone Else Will, And You May Not Like It: Which is why I’m waiting for the next penny to drop on all the companies out there whose marketing has ever included pink or a pink ribbon. It’s on everything from guns to kitchen equipment to, God help me, a bible. As it turns out, the pink ribbon is NOT property of the Komen fund (although they did try), it’s in the public domain. But the “breast cancer = Race For The Cure = pink ribbon” association is so strong, and people on both sides of the abortion divide so mad, I suspect many a pinked product may languish or be a potential problem. Much to the heartburn of marketing managers at major companies of all stripes. That’s assuming they get off the phone from annoyed customers – “How dare you associate with SGK!” whether they’re pro-choice, or pro-life what with Komen’s reversal – long enough to look at their numbers for a while. Think I’m kidding? Consider the (ironically) imminent release of the documentary Pink Ribbons, Inc., Phil Mickleson wearing pink on the links, or pink at the NFL. Right.

phil mickleson at the masters, round one, april 2008

Phil Mickelson at Augusta National, 2010

Pink Ribbon At The NFL

Social Media Is Not An Afterthought: Unless you’re, oh I don’t know, special forces or running a CIA black ops and forbidden to be social online about the job, you company needs to have a social media presence. And it can’t be your communications department’s forgotten stepchild. In the time it took for Komen to look alive on their Facebook page, advocates and supporters had not only pushed several concurrent viral threads supporting Planned Parenthood, the outcry led to an uptick of donationsnearly 2/3rds of what Planned Parenthood is supposed to get from Komen. For many people this week, the Facebook and Twitter feeds were where the story broke (Tuesday afternoon), where it morphed into a serious problem for Komen (on their own Facebook page – one long “How could you!” screed for hours on Tuesday evening through Wednesday morning), and where people took action in favor of Planned Parenthood if they so chose (several concurrent calls to action and Facebook profile photo changes and badges in support of PP ongoing ever since). Honestly, at this point, if you seek me out for a better marketing strategy but say that you “don’t see the point of a Twitter feed,” “just don’t have the time for a Facebook page,” or aren’t going to integrate social media fully and from the outset into your communications plan, chances are we are probably a poor fit for one another. No matter how much I love your mission or product.

Internet + 24/7 = Get Ahead Of The Story: When the story broke I kept going back to the Komen Facebook page to see if there would be a statement, because their own site took forever and a day to load. The page was one long tirade of “How could you?!” And not a word from whoever runs it until perhaps Wednesday, if memory serves correctly. And in the middle of all that, there would be the odd and random tagged story from some unsuspecting group that hadn’t quite cottoned on and whose own cause looked oddly out of place or flat out inappropriate. Nothing like inadvertently  making your own supporters, or affiliates for that matter – who were caught completely off guard – look utterly clueless! In fact, it was fully two days before Komen’s CEO Nancy Brinker talked to the media. I understand that people have to get their act together, especially in a fast-moving crisis where all hell is breaking lose. But seriously? Two days? What on earth took so long? Why did Komen not think or plan ahead?

Plan ahead: Always have a plan. If nothing else, play “what if” and have a plan of how you will respond to all the scenarios. Why else do you think a presidential campaign has opposition research, not to mention communications staff writing up two speeches on election night? There’s the one speech because you know your candidate’s going to win. And then there’s the one you write in case s/he loses. Because. It. Could. Happen. It’s what grown ups do. And by far, the most striking thing about this entire story has been Komen’s sheer disorganization and fumble footed response to events precipitated by its own deliberate policy and actions. They planned to pull funding from a controversial organization with a strong core of supporters, and a broad association in the public’s mind with that third rail of American politics – abortion. Did they not think of how that was going to play out? Particularly since Komen has more than passing ties with the Republican party and a recent high profile openly pro-life hire? Did they not get that they needed to be proactive considering how controversial Planned Parenthood has been for oh, ever? And when a statement finally emerged why wasn’t it watertight? Did no one think to address why only one prominent grantee was singled out for being under investigation? Did no one think to anticipate answers to why Komen finally took action on an issue that had apparently been a concern for years? And why did they wait? And on and on ….

The Susan G Komen Foundation started the week out as a highly respected, very successful, non-partisan, and apolitical group that has been invaluable in de-stigmatizing breast cancer and the envy of many a marketer. It ended the week much tarnished in no small part because it became the story instead of leading and shaping it. See rule #1.

P.S. Okay, so that was way more than just a couple of thoughts! But I can’t tell you how many clients should learn solid lessons from Komen’s very bad week. 

P.P.S. You notice this post is not about my stance on abortion, or whether Komen should or should not fund Planned Parenthood. That’s not what this is about. I welcome your thoughts on how Komen handled their very bad week. But please keep it polite, and on topic about communications strategy. I reserve the right to delete your comment if you stray into the morality of abortion. That’s not what this post or this blog is about. Thank you!