Susan G. Komen’s PR Disaster. What Went Wrong, and How it Could Have Been Prevented.

5 Feb

                The pink ribbon that ties together a breast cancer community managed to tie a pink noose instead. 

               Susan G. Komen somehow hung itself.  Somewhere, someone inside the organization cut the rope just in time.   But, it’s gasping for air.

                The tragedy in its decision to cut off funds to Planned Parenthood not only damaged the image of an exceptionally worthy organization and powerful super brand, it potentially threatened the lives of the some of very women it has promised to serve.  The question is, how did this happen? 

                The legal and moral arguments over the Komen’s initial decision to pull its grants from Planned Parenthood have been well documented.  Komen was getting increasing pressure from the right to life movement to no longer fund breast cancer screenings at an organization that also provides abortions.  How Komen responded to the pressure will be analyzed in case studies that compare it against such classic PR disasters as New Coke, and more the more recent debacles of ACRON, Go Daddy, and SOPA .   Each has its unique set of circumstances, yet each has its similarities.   They all lost track of their audience, their value proposition, and their soul.   But what compounded Komen’s disaster was the speed and means by which its stakeholders struck back.  Social media channels provided the platform and the echo chamber for the outrage to spread like a contagion.

                The outrage begins with what a significant number of Komen’s loyalists and evangelists viewed as a violation of trust.  Komen’s core mission is saving the lives of women.  It’s website boldly states, “Susan G. Komen for the Cure is fighting every minute of every day to finish what we started and achieve our vision of a world without breast cancer.”  It’s not just a credo, it’s a commandment. 

                Komen’s founder and CEO, Nancy Brinker proclaims, “We’re proud of the fact that we don’t simply dump funds and run.  We create activists—one person, one community, one state, one nation at a time—to try and solve the number one health concern of women.”

                But Komen’s announcement that it would suspend eligibility for further grants to Planned Parenthood for breast cancer examinations seemingly violated its core proposition and values.    Brinker attempted to argue in a YouTube video that the decision was not politically motivated.  But in a world where perception is reality, no one bought it.   Tragically, Komen, never saw it coming.


                From a pure communications analysis, Komen’s actions were incongruent with both with its mission and its constituents.  What it failed to take into account is that Planned Parenthood is also a regarded women’s health organization with considerable overlap among Komen’s own activists and volunteers.  I’ve created a simple heuristic model that shows the positive and negative congruencies between Komen, Planned Parenthood and women.  (Figure 1)

Figure 1 - Komen's Communications Incongruency Model

             Planned Parenthood has a loyal constituency of its own.  Among its supporters is New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.  When Bloomberg took to Twitter and announced a $250,000 donation to Planned Parenthood, it leveraged more money and buzz. (Figure 2)

Figure 2 - New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Tweet

                What Bloomberg effectively achieved was a new congruency.  (Figure 3)  Women and donors who support both Planned Parenthood and Komen didn’t take to the streets, they followed Bloomberg and took to their smart phones and computers.  

Figure 3 - Mayor Bloomberg's Communcation Congruency Model

             The outrage in social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter spread faster than the opening steps of a Komen 3-Day event.   A little more than 24-hours after Brinker took to Youtube defending Komen’s actions, the organization issued an abrupt apology and restored funding to Planned Parenthood.  The carefully crafted message reads as follows:  “We want to apologize for recent decisions that cast doubt upon our commitment to our mission of saving women’s lives.”   In other words, they rediscovered their soul and their credo.

                 Which brings us back to Komen’s initial decision.  How would the course of events been different had the executive leadership made its decision based upon the organization’s core values and mission?  These are the same questions Komens  PR agency, Ogilvy, will have to ask as well.  In the coming days Ogilvy will have to craft a set of strategic messages to satisfy not just Komen’s supporters of Planned Parenthood, but those supporters who strongly oppose that fact that Planned Parenthood also provides abortion counseling.  The tragedy is that unless Ogilvy is working pro-bono, Komen will spend a huge sum of money on damage control that otherwise would have gone to breast cancer research.

                Komen will likely recover and catch its breath.  But it’s near death experience is a valuable lesson for organizations to constantly pay attention to their core values.  If not, in this new world order of social democracy, their followers will hold them accountable.

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