Well, another one bites the dust. Add one more name to the long list of organizations undone by poor decisions and even worse crisis management. In the space of one week the Susan G. Komen Foundation – famous for being the brand behind the ubiquitous pink campaign against Breast Cancer – has done serious, perhaps irreparable damage, to its reputation and brand. Check out this article in Fast Company for a good summary of the imbroglio.

The Komen leadership team did so many things wrong it’s difficult to know where to start. Let me try…

  • Think before you act – First and foremost, if you are going to make a policy decision that will have a big impact on your operations, make sure there is a solid rationale behind the change. The argument used by Komen for the suspension of payments to Planned Parenthood – that changes were dictated by a new policy prohibiting organizations under investigation from funding – appeared disingenuous. Buried in the policy legalese – our desire was to fulfill our fiduciary duty to our donors by not funding grant applications made by organizations under investigation – is the reality that the “investigation” in question was seen by most as a partisan witch-hunt by one anti-abortion member of Congress. Observers were further led to believe the dramatic impact of this policy on Planned Parenthood was a mere coincidence.
  • Don’t try to bury the story – The story of the policy change broke with an article by Associated Press, and quickly picked up steam on Twitter and Facebook before becoming a top story for traditional media outlets. The Komen team didn’t announce the policy broadly – presumably trying a stealth approach – preferring to inform it’s various affiliates directly. (By all accounts Planned Parenthood was not informed in advance of the change.) When the story broke Komen leaders were slow to react, and their initial responses were brief, formal and defensive. Some PR observers suggest the battle was lost in those initial 24-hours, when Planned Parenthood mobilized its fans and led a smart, vocal PR counter-offensive.
  • Don’t ignore social media – The failure of the Komen team to acknowledge, and adequately respond to, the uproar on social networks is seen by many as the biggest failure in their crisis management strategy. The outrage was swift, viral and overwhelmingly negative. Many of my female “friends” on Facebook, some big supporters of Komen over the years, expressed their disappointment and disavowal. The Komen team did use Twitter for updates (largely repeating their canned messages) but anchored their response through more traditional “push” channels like written statements and YouTube videos. To make matters worse, they were accused of scrubbing the most negative responses from their branded Facebook pages and websites.
  • Remember who you are – Somewhere along the way it appears the Komen team forgot they were a charity whose stated purpose was promoting the health of women – including poor women – and that they are a non-profit dependent on their supporters and fans for revenue. Their funding decision – at best an awkward decision based on dubious legal reasons – and their subsequent response seemed totally at odds with the feel-good, compassionate image of their brand. Whatever the merit of their decision, the impact of cutting off thousands of women from low-cost access to breast screening was anathema to their stated mission.
  • Listen to others, not your own story – One lesson that Karen Brinker and team may still not have learned is that stubbornly repeating an argument that few believe is not courageous, it’s counter-productive. In fact, the Komen team continued their defensive, almost defiant stance even as several officials resigned in protest – surely not a good sign. Even after reversing it’s decision, Komen tweets and comments stubbornly continued to defend their original decision and argue politics was never a factor. The battle had been lost, but the lesson was not learned.
  • Back what you say – The Komen team never provided solid evidence to counter the strong circumstantial evidence, supported by claims from former staffers, that the reason for their policy change was political. It didn’t help that previous statements and recent tweets by new policy VP Karen Handel made it clear she was an ardent critic of Planned Parenthood.
  • Don’t treat people as idiots – Perhaps the most egregious error by the Komen team in this crisis is their attempt to position the response to the policy change as positive, even as any casual observer could see the overwhelmingly negative social media reaction and related media coverage. This blatant attempt at spin was as misguided and incredulous as it was ineffective.
  • Build and protect your goodwill – Another potential factor in the quick fall from grace for the Komen organization was that its goodwill may have eroded over the past few years due to some very uncharitable behavior – including its hard-ball legal stance against any hint of copyright infringement. The brittle, arrogant demeanor of Komen founder – and main spokesperson – Karen Brinker probably didn’t help their cause.

Of course, Komen did have the wisdom to change their decision – albeit belatedly and without totally letting go of their delusional narrative. In fact, they continue to be defensive about the “incorrect presumption” behind their ill-advised policy, and pointedly did not promise to renew the cancelled grants to Planned Parenthood.

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