What not to do in a crisis (Part 2)

Back in November, we shared our thoughts on how Penn State and UC Davis grossly mishandled their PR responses to major campus scandals. By failing to be open with their constituents, issue timely apologies, or take responsibility for their institutions’ failures, leaders at both universities incited the outrage of the public.

This week, the Susan J. Komen Foundation brought another lesson in how a lack of open communication can result in massive public backlash.

On Tuesday, the story broke that Komen would withdraw its longtime funding of many Planned Parenthood affiliates, due to a new policy that prevents grants to organizations under investigation.

Since early fall, Planned Parenthood has been the target of an investigation initiated by Republican Representative Cliff Stearns of Florida into whether government money was spent on abortions.

This morning, Komen Foundation CEO Nancy Brinker released a statement reversing the decision to defund Planned Parenthood, after an enormous outpouring of criticism, online organizing, and a direct request from 26 Democratic senators.

The statement included a public apology for what Komen described as “recent decisions that cast doubt upon our commitment to our mission of saving women’s lives.” Although it goes on to say that “politics has no place in our grant process,” and that only “criminal and conclusive” investigations will affect its funding decisions, it’s unclear whether the foundation is really backing down. Just yesterday, the foundation said the investigation was not the cause of the cuts, and that the real issue was that Planned Parenthood did not directly provide mammograms. The statement issued this morning doesn’t address that concern at all. While some are celebrating the statement as a victory, others are saying it leaves open the possibility that Planned Parenthood’s future grant applications could be rejected.

But even before its current skirting, the foundation made a grave error in delaying its response to an angry public. By not addressing its decision in due time, and letting its critics speak for it, Komen once again demonstrated how a lack of a communications plan can crush an organization’s reputation in a matter of days.

Abortion is clearly one of the most politically divisive issues in the country, and Komen also received praise for its actions from anti-abortion advocates. But regardless of our personal positions and whether or not our work deals with hot button issues, we can all take another lesson from Komen in what not to do in a crisis: stay silent.

In the age of social media, word travels fast. Within a few hours of the AP story breaking, Planned Parenthood sent a fundraising email out to its network, asking supporters to replace the money that Komen pulled for breast cancer screenings for low-income women. It was only minutes before Facebook and Twitter blew up with pro-Planned Parenthood, anti-Komen response.

For two days, the Komen Foundation said zilch. No press release, nothing on the website. It didn’t update its Facebook page, although it did delete critical comments and add a post welcoming Energizer as a new sponsor (leading to a flurry of negative comments on Energizer’s Facebook page and a call to boycott the company.) It didn’t respond via its active Twitter feed,  although somehow it found time to tweet about prostate cancer found in a mummy.

Komen officials ended their silence on Thursday, attempting to manage public outrage. In a conference call with the media, Brinker said the decision was due to changes in its grantee selection process and had nothing to do with Planned Parenthood’s role as an abortion provider.

Brinker’s explanation was not only late, but evasive. It was already clear that the decision was related to a politically motivated investigation, not a simple change in administrative process. A top public health official at Komen even resigned over the decision. By not responding to the criticism and then pretending the decision was unrelated to such a highly controversial social issue, the foundation broke the trust of many of its supporters.

This isn’t Komen Foundation’s first bad PR move. Remember the Buckets for the Cure campaign? Or when the foundation sued smaller nonprofits for using the phrase “for the cure”?

How will the Komen Foundation move forward in the face of an even bigger blowup? It will have a lot of work to do to repair its image. But as a lesson in the value of preparation, honesty, and respect for people on all sides of an issue–hopefully the third time’s a charm.


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