You will have an opinion, likely a strong one, no matter where you stand on the recent brouhaha that saw Susan G. Komen Foundation (SGK) defund Planned Parenthood for providing mammograms to poor women. That’s about $700,000 a year in lost support.
Perhaps you’ve been influenced to internalize the image of SGK as a beastly big organization gathering funds for research and conquer breast cancer. Planned Parenthood may have appeared to you as the place where woman can safely and affordably find health care in the neighborhood.
Why? Because the human’s most rapid response is to “feel.” You’ve formed an impression, an opinion and perhaps a passionate response because of how you personally received the message. Many got word from social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter before the news organizations could bombard you with their spin.
Your opinion is likely based on a gut feeling and your personal life experiences, current comforts and fears, and then your conscious intellect.
“People will not always remember what you said, but they will always remember how you made them feel,” is a phrase I’ve shared often in my business writing seminars. What also is true is the feeling of antagonism will last longer than the issue or even the social media campaigns.
Nancy Brinker began Susan G. Komen, the organization that bears her sister’s name as a result of a sincere and heartfelt promise at her bedside when she succumbed to breast cancer at the age of 36. Brinker’s vow was to wage war on cancer and to find a cure to prevent suffering for other women.
But, how could the whir of a new policy announcement, then cold, stilted apologies, clumsy retractions and stumbling backtracking on the issue of funding for thousands of women be so devoid of emotion and empathy?
It caused America to react, first with feelings and then with their pocketbook.
Let’s first look at what was said, and the feelings it stirred up in so many millions. Lastly, we’ll look at how Komen should have done their messaging differently.
Recap of the digital disaster
Tellingly, you can get the hard facts of the timeline of troubling messages by searching with the drama drenched words “Susan G. Komen media debacle.”
It is understood to have all started in April 2011, when SGK hired Karen Handel as Vice President for Public Policy. Handel a former Georgia conservative Republican gubernatorial candidate, was already a critic of Planned Parenthood. Jeffrey Goldberg at “The Atlantic” wrote how Handel was the force behind the seemingly sudden rule change that led to Planned Parenthood’s defunding.
No one was happy. But, when the announcement hit cyberspace, it created a firestorm of anger.
Social media and the blogosphere was set ablaze when SGK revoked funding, citing policy to not fund organizations under investigation at the local, state, or federal level. It fueled the anti-abortion v. pro-choice debate, and events made it a top and trending topic
One Komen employee, Mollie Williams, resigned in protest. Another was the chair of Los Angeles Chapter of Komen for the Cure. A New York radiologist serving as an advisor to the charity threatened to leave unless the funding was reinstated. There were others.
Outside of Komen, politicians voiced their unhappiness. Senators, 26 of them, signed a letter to Komen urging the organization to restore funding to Planned Parenthood.
A congressional investigation was underway to see if Planned Parenthood had illegally funded abortions with federal money. Why then did SGK continue to fund Penn State, while it was under investigation. Hence, the announcement to defund them.
Komen caught playing politics
More questions came from corporate investors, government, women with cancer, the people who love them, the people who donate and support the pink campaigns, those who worry that SGK decision will effect low-income and minority women to their detriment.
The emotional response unravelled Komen’s pink bow and its powerful public relations campaign for the cure.
- Should Brinker, and the entire board and executives resign?
- Is Brinker wrong to collect a salary?
- Does Komen’s holding pharma stock like AstraZeneca and in partner companies linked to cancerous chemicals affect Komen policies?
- With $1.9 billion in donations, when is the cure, which is their mission, to be discovered?
- Why are only 70% of the donations raised at work for the cure?
Komen responded with their facts, but fact, position papers, interview responses and policy clarifications paled in view of the fall out. The apology came in a statement on Feb. 3. The SGK page looks like business as usual but on it, buried in the rhetoric is the rephrasing of their defunding or barring groups only under criminal investigation.
Planned Parenthood could once again apply for grants.
Too little too late?
Finding out Nancy and husband, Norman Brinker, were, according to a 1993 New York Times article, personally worth $56 million didn’t help.
People rushed in to donate to Planned Parenthood according to their means.
Mayor Bloomberg committed $250,000 in a challenge call to others, including his Twitter followers to match his donation.
Komen supporters expressed their confusion and anger. The backlash was recorded post by post on social media at cyber speed. Some chose to redirect their SGK support to Planned Parenthood. Others pledged to never again Race for the Cure.
Handel finally resigned.
By then, the round had clearly gone to Planned Parenthood and the constituent communities they serve. By Feb. 1, they had won the public heart and perception. On that day, they announced that more than 600 donors, in the previous 24 hours alone (far more than the normal 150 or so a day), made $650,000 in donations and pledges.
For Komen, the disconnect with the public is a good example of not having thought through the consequences of a controversial announcement. This was a huge message failure for an incredibly savvy organization.
In Part 2, we’ll look at what could have been done differently.