Lessons from the Susan G. Komen Planned Parenthood Debacle

April 11, 2012

Every organization has a crown jewel — something that it’s known for and that is essential to its ongoing success. For a business, it may be profitability, innovation or quality. But for charitable organizations, the crown jewel has always been reputation — for prudence, fairness, honesty and producing results that benefit society.

As many PR professionals know, a company’s good reputation is built over decades and can be lost in a day. For the breast-cancer-fighting organization Susan G. Komen For The Cure, the loss of reputation happened in one brief moment, when a controversial decision cost the organization prestige, financial support and trust.

Against the advice of its professional staff, and apparently without input from its PR counsel, Komen announced in January that it was ending its $650,000 funding for Planned Parenthood — money that it uses exclusively for cancer-detection services.

Komen attributed the move to a new policy of not providing money to any organization that is under investigation. Because the action appeared to be a cave-in to pressure groups that oppose Planned Parenthood’s abortion services, Komen put itself in an untenable position. Komen leaders should have foreseen the resulting business disaster.

The controversy

Why was Komen’s position untenable? First, leaders selectively applied the policy. Komen provides funding for some 2,000 organizations, but Planned Parenthood was the only one that they discontinued.

For instance, the federal government is investigating Penn State University for covering up reports of child sexual abuse by a now-former assistant football coach. However, Komen currently provides $7.5 million in funding to the Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.

In addition, Komen gave $150,000 to the Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, which is under federal oversight by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services for safety deficiencies.

Komen implemented the move shortly after Karen Handel, an outspoken critic of both abortion and Planned Parenthood, became the organization’s senior vice president for public policy.

The justification that Komen used for the funding termination — the “Congressional investigation” of Planned Parenthood — reeked of partisan politics.

Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), a Congressman with known anti-abortion views, started the investigation last year. He said that he wanted to be sure that Komen wasn’t using taxpayer money for abortions, but so far there haven’t been any charges. Government auditors have reportedly given Planned Parenthood a clean bill on this issue every year.

While this doesn’t prove that Komen’s action was purely political, it’s difficult to reach any other conclusion.

A video that Komen posted on its website showing CEO Nancy Brinker making statements like, “Some have regrettably mischaracterized [our position]” and “Scurrilous accusations being hurled at this organization are profoundly hurtful to so many of us who have put our hearts, souls and lives into this organization” compounded the damage.

At another point, she declared, “We will never bow to political pressure” and “We will never turn our backs on the women who need us most.” Critics were quick to point out that a large percentage of women who go to Planned Parenthood for breast cancer screenings and other health services are from low-income backgrounds and uninsured.

The worst failure of the video, however, was that it never addressed the political accusations. (Officials removed the video from Komen’s website, though you can access it on YouTube.) The video was reminiscent of those some businesses produce after fatal accidents, where they say, “Safety is our No. 1 concern.”

The fallout

Who won and lost here? Planned Parenthood clearly won. Donations came pouring in — $3 million in three days. Many longtime Komen supporters announced that they would now channel all of their money to Planned Parenthood. Media stories and statements by political figures highlighted the organization’s contributions to women’s health. 

In short, the fallout significantly enhanced Planned Parenthood’s reputation for caring and service (its crown jewel) at the expense of Susan G. Komen for the Cure. Indeed, the Komen organization lost mightily: diminished reputation, loss of financial support, loss of staff members and volunteers, and plenty of bad press.

Komen reversed its Planned Parenthood position in early February and Handel left the charity, but the damage was already done. The organization may never fully recover.

It is noteworthy that social media played a critical role in this sequence of events. Thousands of comments on Facebook and YouTube took the story viral, and few of the posts were anything but condemnations of Komen’s decision. The charity might have been able to manage the story to some degree in the mainstream media, but in the unfiltered world of social media, control was practically impossible.

So what do we learn from all this?

  • Listen to your professional staff, especially the PR team. If you think they are wrong, bring in outside counsel for a second opinion.
  • Be aware of the timing of what you do. This snafu came in the middle of a political season in which abortion is a hot issue.
  • Weigh the power and impact of social media before you act. 
  • Avoid issuing pious boilerplate statements or videos that don’t respond to the specific issue.
  • Don’t position yourself as a victim. It won’t work.
Virgil Scudder
Virgil Scudder is the author of “World Class Communication: How Great CEOs Win With the Public, Shareholders, Employees, and the Media,” which received an Award of Distinction as one of the best business books of 2012. Email: virgil@virgilscudder.com.


David in Arizona says:

This piece expertly boils down the public relations bottom line for organizations -- there are no communications crises, only management/operational crises. Planned Parenthood was pilloried not for what they said, but for what they did and how they did it. Their funding decision was inconsistent with their own operating standards, which they applied selectively. No amount of communication would change this. I suspect they will suffer permanent damage.

Aug. 10, 2012

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