Is it now a case of too little cash too late in the controversy for Susan G. Komen for the Cure’s (SGK) contrite plea to Congress?
SGK founder Nancy Brinker’s letter of apology to members of Congress may not be able to make up for the massive mistakes in messaging during the rift between the fundraiser behemoth and one of its grant recipients, Planned Parenthood, earlier this year.
She is now asking representatives to let SGK, whose funds are drying up, to tap into the National Breast & Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program out of the CDC.
Recent appearances with less severe hair style and outfit may not be enough to soften the pink flags of suspicion raised by some of the words in her mea culpa message. Words such as ‘missteps’ and ‘mishandling’ and acknowledging that her foundation “made some mistakes” may not relay her caring for her community of women in need of screening and treatment services.
In my original article below, are some of the messaging mistakes SGK made. They were noted at the height of the public relations crisis when donors and supporters were primed to be reassured and their loyalty, and money, retained.
Interestingly, I don’t recall hearing or seeing the word “partner” in the news clips of that time, while Brinker now sprinkles it strategically to co-opt the keepers of the cash for cancer care.
(Original Post by Helena Kaufman in February 2012)
Komen’s cancerous message could have been prevented
Marketing brilliance started the success that pushed Susan G. Komen Foundation (SGK) to the top of donor lists and helped elevate the war against breast cancer. It was not in evidence during their recent crisis in communication that made a mess of the messaging around the announcement to defund Planned Parenthood by $680,000 on a point of policy.
The success of SGK was driven naturally as a promise by Nancy Brinker to her sister Susan who died of cancer at age 36. Its growth mirrors grassroots movements, driven by the needs of a community and counting on the engagement of many individuals. Brinker managed to move her call to raise awareness and funds to cure breast cancer and to alleviate suffering of women from a worried whisper amongst affected families to a loud and conscious roar heard and recognized everywhere.
In the process, the SGK, and all that was attached to it, became one of the most beloved organizations and an easily identified brand also. Communities and corporations joined to Run for the Cure, to raise money, and to campaign for services. Pink think and pride washed over the world.
Should it be a surprise then that SGK in its growth, seems to have become disconnected from the people it serves? To see that it has become enmeshed in politics and behind closed doors machinations that make big money marketing happen?
The result is: When the going got tough, the decision makers and the system should have been in place to lead the Komen team through the process.
Rule #1 of good communications broken: Be present and available.
The crisis we all know about by now is the decision the SGK is entitled to make. They determined funding from SGK had to match their mandate but also to follow policy.
Rule #2 that anyone can tell you from entertainment to political engagement: Timing is everything.
SGK committed to an action to defund Planned Parenthood. The story broke in the news and evoked emotions that blazed across all communication channels now available for such things – TV, radio, print media and now the cyber speed incredibly accessible social media.
Within hours, Planned Parenthood sent a fundraising email out to its network, asking supporters to help fill in the gap that Komen’s action would cause for breast cancer screenings for low-income women.
Whether Planned Parenthood had been given some notice by SGK in December of the intended defunding, or whether they responded in an opportunistic way, “as a bully” to quote Karen Handel, V.P. of Public Policy for SGK, is moot. Handel would later say clumsily in an interview there was a “ladies agreement” not to disclose the defunding.
In fact, Planned Parenthood had to say very little as they harnessed the ideal strategy: Ask once and then benefit from everyone else speaking for you, for the impassioned and enraged to carry your message for you, everywhere.
In the face of 1.3 million tweets on Twitter referencing Planned Parenthood and Susan G. Komen, SGK found they had to reinstate funding.
Planned Parenthood’s swing into action within hours of the defunding announcement reached not only their constituents, but also the circles of influence of their supporters. They raised nearly $3 million.
The amount designated to Planned Parenthood represented 0.2 percent of SGK funds on their budget line, yet it ultimately drew the line that rebranded Komen from the breast cancer charity to the anti-abortion breast cancer charity.
Whether they meant to or not, Komen’s actions polarized the topic of their funding decisions. The disconcerting part is SGK underestimated public reaction and had no communication strategy in place.
Rule #3 is a version of a favorite phrase applicable to the management of controversial news: never ask a question in court you don’t know the answer to.
Put yourself in that other person’s pink examination gown to understand how they would feel, how everyone concerned feels and how you can address their point of view to help them understand your choice and position. Not doing so shows total disregard for others and an ignorance of the most basic preparation, asking, “what if?”
Shame on Susan G. Komen for having asked millions to feel as the gateway to being asked to give, then to drop news without including or preparing the public. Those decisions came out of closed door political manoeuvres, and did not take into account the emotional impact and the sense of abandonment it would engender especially for women in low-income areas, dependent on access to Planned Parenthood services.
Even worse, the public lost trust. The media glare lit up every aspect of the now, pink elephant in the room. Lifestyles, political agendas, personnel issue, sponsor pressures and the frightening pressure their pro-life consumer level supporters have on the sponsors.
On top of their perceived cold, callous cruelty, SGK is guilty of these other missteps in their failure to get people “on their side” through planned and basic communications:
1. Formulate a crisis communications plan that includes social media.
Komen did not differentiate between traditional and social media. It was two days before they countered negative news on Twitter and Facebook. They simply issued a one-size-fits-all press release and sent it out to live its life; online, a day is a lifetime of delay.
Even worse, Komen created this crisis by NOT preparing in advance. They could have prepared the public, held meetings and lined up allies, or offered the solutions we look to our leaders for.
Designating a capable and well-briefed spokesperson is key. Karen Handel and Nancy Brinker alternated in their media appearances, when they finally came, between misinformed and zombie-like repetition of uninspiring rhetoric. Messages coming from other staffers were weak and confused.
2. Don’t disappear or your brand will.
Responding, immediately protects a brand’s integrity and invites conversation. This sends a message that people’s opinions, including those in opposition, count. For an organization for and by the people this is critical.
Talk to your donors. It reassures, informs, empowers and it is the right thing to do to appreciate their support and to encourage its continuance. SGK’s success reflects on donors who do great things in their communities, at grass roots level and show they belong. SGK needs to be on good terms with the people around the water cooler and the dining room tables of America.
Talk to the media. Air time needs to be filled, and someone will fill it for you if you are not present. Komen’s communication interns could not delete the negative posts fast enough. The time would have been better spent communicating directly and in an engaging manner to retain loyalty and credibility through accountability and information.
3. Dismiss social media and go the way of the dodo.
Donors and detractors are online. You get to speak using tools with speed and coverage never known before. Being active online lets you monitor and listen to what your supporters are saying.
Online is a lifeline. It is the pulse of public relations.
Failing to mix it up on social media and keep their message clear and alive from the source, rebranded SGK as that organization that hates Planned Parenthood and it moved from the prima cancer charity to the pro-life cancer charity.
Once in the media fray, here are my ABCs:
Appearances can aggravate or enhance: Action and optics are one and the same. Appointing Karen Handel is seen as a political decision. If it is not, messages need to be sent to counter this view.
Ban any bashing of others and no hiding behind policy: Policies come and go. The impersonal impression, an excuse about inaction or lack of compassion on the basis of a policy is felt forever.
Better to stress benefits such as the necessity and the plan to stretch dollars or find distribution that would benefit more women in a different way might have been a good idea. Instead Brinker, unblinkingly and unconvincingly went on YouTube to repeat policy and promise to never abandon women, ever, even though no one believed anything she said anymore.
Control the conversation: First participate in it. Silence is deadly and betrays lack of a plan and panic. “Talking” to supporters and detractors in social media is mandatory now. In addition to their stab at a statement they hoped would be successful in traditional, SGK would be smart to speak in that individual tone that gets messages across in a real-time environment where information is shared at super speeds.
The “masses” took over the talk. The brand deteriorated due to the silence. Suspicions of agendas were played out and the debate became pro-life vs. pro-choice.
Susan G. Komen through their slowness and silence allowed their massive, everywoman base to be painted with a heavy political brush that covered over the real issues at hand.
Too little too late was clear in their faceless press releases and eventual TV and video opportunities should have had policy edited out and personality and compassion for real people spliced in.
Do you think Susan G. Komen can recover?