Saturday, February 04, 2012

A Public Relations Nightmare - Komen Foundation and Planned Parenthood

Last Tuesday evening, the Komen Foundation announced it would withdraw funding from Planned Parenthood. They offered no explanation at the time, and seemed to expect this to go relatively unnoticed, but it did not. Apparently the Komen Foundation did not understand we live in a world where everyone has a voice through social media. My guess is that they were totally unprepared for what happened next, and I can't blame them for that. The public outrage was beyond what I would have expected.

The next day they announced the funding was withdrawn because Planned Parenthood was under investigation by congress. This sort of investigation has become somewhat routine as a political move because Planned Parenthood does abortions, although they have never been shown to be using any money inappropriately. Regardless, the public did not accept Komen's explanation. The Komen Facebook page was filled with comments - about 90% of them negative.

So, the next day they gave a different reason - that Planned Parenthood did not do mammograms, only screenings.

Then, the following day they announced they were reinstating the funding.

Between Tuesday evening and Friday morning, Planned Parenthood received donations more than the total of what Komen withdrew and then reinstated. They also received some donations from high visibility folks including New York Mayor Bloomberg who gave a quarter million dollars. Komen also lost some top executives who resigned in protest of the decision to withdraw funding.

It is fascinating to watch from a PR perspective.
It boils down to this:
Everyone knew Planned Parenthood performed abortions. 
Until the past week, no one knew the Komen Foundation had a political agenda. 

The Komen foundation can give its money to whoever it wants to give its money to. They are not obligated to support Planned Parenthood or anyone else. There were, no doubt, people who were thrilled Komen withdrew its support from an organization they view as evil. Unfortunately, Komen has now alienated them by reinstating the funding.

You can't say something is not political when it's based on a political decision. That's just untrue and makes you look foolish. If Planned Parenthood had been PROVEN to be using funding inappropriately, then withdrawing funding would not have been political.

In general, if you find yourself in this sort of a situation, the faster you address it, the better. And honesty is always the best policy. If you want to be a political organization, don't pretend you're something else.

What happens next will be interesting to watch. Komen has been the king of the non-profit jungle for a long time. They have been brilliant in fundraising and have raised a generation of women to think it natural to volunteer for them.

I'd love to know what prompted this. Was it their high level executives, who have strong ties to the Republican party? Was it a donor? Until this week, I doubt anyone had paid much attention to the politics of the executives because it had not been an issue. However, when they made a politically motivated decision they opened themselves up to that scrutiny.

What prompted the decision? And what next? Will they see donations decrease? Fundraising relies on trust and regardless of how much good the organization has done, people now believe there is more to those pink ribbons than they knew. It will be interesting to see what happens.

I thought they might pick up donations from folks who disagree with Planned Parenthood, but when they reinstated the funding, they would have lost those folks. Now people who are supporters of Planned Parenthood may well find another group to give to if they want to support cancer research. If the American Cancer Society were smart, they would already be mobilizing. But, alas, it doesn't seem they are.

So, after three and a half days of defending their position, which was more difficult when they changed it, all they've done is tarnish their reputation. They've exposed themselves as a politically motivated group, as opposed to the purely noble organization we believed them to be a week ago.

This whole episode points out a few things organizations and businesses simply have to understand from a PR and social media standpoint:
  • everyone has a voice these days and they can and will use it
  • a group of people who believe the same thing can form quickly and create change
  • things move fast
  • you can't hide behind terse statements these days - people demand more - especially when they are giving you their money
  • you can't change your statements from one day to the next and expect people to not know the difference - we have all that information at hand
They're now going to have to devote large amounts of energy, time and money to brand and PR issues, instead of raising money for breast cancer research. The other thing is that, unfortunately, people never really forget. The United Way scandal was decades ago, but people still mention it. The Red Cross scandal is still fresh. Now we can add the Komen Misstep to the mix.

However, Komen has proven to be brilliant in the past. Perhaps they will show us a new trick or two in the next few weeks. I know I'll be watching.

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sigerson said...

Why would Komen do this? Here's probably a key part of your answer, and reported Tuesday, February 7 by the Associated Press:

"According to [a person with direct knowledge of decision-making at Komen's Dallas HQ]... a driving force behind the move was [Karen] Handel, who was hired by Komen last year as vice president for public policy after losing a campaign for governor in Georgia in which she stressed her anti-abortion views and frequently denounced Planned Parenthood."

Patsy Terrell said...

I understand Handel has now resigned. It's a great example of how you should be careful about who you hire. I will be amazed if Komen is able to ever again be viewed as a benign institution, doing good work, without a political agenda. Maybe they can. I'll be waiting and watching. If they do they'll be written up in text books. Of course, so far the help they've sought also has political leanings. We'll see.