Posted by: Kristen Ridley | February 2, 2012

Susan G. Komen defunds Planned Parenthood: Real-time communications/PR case study

I seriously doubt that I will be the only person to blog about what has become a firestorm of reaction – both con, and, to be fair, pro as well – to the decision by the Susan G. Komen Foundation to defund Planned Parenhood, but I have found the after-math to be an absolutely fascinating real-life, real-time case study on an organization making a controversial decision.

Unfortunately, in the case of the Komen decision, my opinion would be that this is a perfect “what NOT to do” case study. The Komen organization, from the outside looking in, at any rate, has done everything wrong from a communications/PR standpoint, ignoring the fundamental components that any communicator worth their fancy pen would surely have advised the leadership at Komen. Since I am communicator, and I think I’m worthy of my fancy pen, I decided to post about those fundamentals and where I feel Komen shot themselves in the foot with their handling of this situation.

The Komen Foundation,  probabably THE most well-known, thoroughly established and most successful breast cancer charity going, announced this decision a couple of days ago, and since then have been besieged on the internet with Facebook and Twitter posts raging about the decision.

As I have avidly followed the online chatter about this situation, I have been reminded of the basics that communicators everywhere are [or should be!] advocating with the leadership of their organizations, and which it appears The Komen organization either was not warned about, or simply didn’t choose to listen.

Rule #1 – Be Prepared

Every organization faces potential crises, and strong communications teams will have anticipated and prepared response plans for them, thorough, detailed plans that enable the organization to hit the ground running if and when any of those situations come to pass.

It appears that the Komen organization was completely unprepared for the reaction their decision generated, and in fact, they engaged in what I like to call “Ostrich Syndrome”in how they chose to “prepare” for the reaction once the defunding decision was announced. According to an article in the Atlantic   in a quote attributed to the former senior communication advisor, John Hammarley, “The Komen board of directors are very politically savvy folks, and I think over time they thought if they gave in to the very aggressive propaganda machine of the anti-abortion groups, that the issue would go away.

Based on the number of Tweets I’ve seen on the topic and the news articles crowding the net, I think it’s unlikely this is going to “go away” any time soon. The online petition to demand Komen rescind the defunding decision, and the  reports that Planned Parenthood has received – at last count – about $400,000 in donations in about 48 hours also suggests that this issue won’t be “off the news cycle” in the near future. Clearly Komen was not prepard and that is a foolish and short-sighted approach for a multi-million dollar charitable organization. Even if they don’t care about public opinion to their decision, they still should have been prepared for it, and have had an appropriate plan to respond to it in ways that would positively position their organization to maintain the support of their stakeholders.

Because the other part of rule #1 is to understand who your audiences are and what they believe to be important, as well as what they value about your organization enough to continue supporting it. The Komen leaders also failed miserably on this. Particularly, as the money given to Planned Parenthood from Komen was used ONLY for cancer screenings and mainly for low-income women who, without this support would have no access to such life-saving testing. Not a single dollar from Komen support had any involvement whatsoever with birth-control or abortion services also provided by Planned Parenthood, which is – allegedly – the reasoning behind the defunding, if you believe some of the insiders and former-insiders from the Komen offices.

How, I ask myself, can it be possible that the leadership of Komen were unaware that this decision would enrage women everywhere with its appearance of political jerry-rigging and complete lack of regard and sensitivity to the very audience-base the organization was orginally created to help? Even if they knew and just didn’t CARE, which is, if not a fantastic approach, then at least a legitimate one. But even if that WERE the case, they should still follow . . .

Rule #2 – Respond

You would think that this would be a given, considering the world we now live in, where “regular folks” can start a campaign or slam an organization around the world in a few hours, with nothing more than a Facebook or Twitter account, but if your organization is going to do something that will be unpopular with a large portion of your customer base, you’d better be prepped and ready to be out there telling your side of the story so you are shaping the narrative rather than allowing “the interwebs” to do it for you.

Well, I think that would be a given, but maybe that’s just because I’m a communicator and I’ve spent the bulk of the past 15 years or so deeply focused on anticipating, understanding and preparing to respond to issues and situations involving the organizations I’ve worked for. The Komen leadership clearly has a different view, since they said NOTHING for hours after the shrieking started online. More on this from a thoughtful intelligent post from Kivi Leroux Miller, and one more from Dan York. The truth is there are some situations where saying nothing in the face of a fire-storm is appropriate, but this was not one of them. The “corporate-speak” statement by Komen, issued much later, Komen’s leaders should have been personally responding to Tweets and Facebook posts to provide the organization’s reasons for the decision and explain [with the appropriate messages] how the decision aligns with the organization’s goals and values . . . well, if it DOES align that is.

Which brings us neatly into:

Rule #3 – Tell the truth

This again would seem to be a rather obvious thing, with the transparency the access to information, other people and results that the online, instantaneous world we’re living in has created for organizations. We’ve seen the results of being less than forthright on organizations all over the place, and they’re rarely good news for the organization’s public reputation, or, more critically, its bottom line. So WHY do companies keep trying to fool people?!

In the case of the Komen debacle, whether they told the truth or not appears to be a matter of opinion. The justification for the defunding comes from a newly instituted rule “to block grants to organizations currently under investigation by any local, state, or federal authorities” [here’s the full article the quote comes from]. But there appears to be an awful lot of ambiguity about this new rule, not least how quickly it was created, and dispute about how it is, and will be applied.

The equally plausible explanation that the arrival of vocally “pro-life” executive Karen Handel was the impetus of this change, has given the impression of disingenuousness on the part of the Komen organization, which is precisely what they do NOT need if they hope to weather this storm with their supporters – and their donations – intact. Let’s be, well, honest here, when the newly hired senior leader of the organization who’s on the record as saying ” …. since I am pro-life, I do not support the mission of Planned Parenthood,” [full article here], and the organization very shortly afterwards defunds Planned Parenthood, the organization should be prepared to explain why there is not a direct correlation and provide some substantive explanations for the reasoning behind a decision like this. The Komen organization hasn’t done either, at least as far as I am able to see.

Overall, this truly is a blueprint for how NOT to handle the implementation of an unpopular decision within an organization. Only time will tell just how much the decision will ultimately cost the Komen Foundation, and whether they will get past the black eye the perceived politically-motivated choice has inflicted on them, and if they can regain their respected position in the crowded charitable organization pool.

For me, this has been an excellent reminder about the “golden rules of crisis management” and has reinforced what I know to be the right way to counsel my leaders during, and before, a crisis to avoid experiencing the kind of painful and debilitating situation Komen is now living. If for no other reason, than because now and for the foreseeable future, the Komen leaders will be dealing with this, as opposed to furthering the mandate of the organization, which despite the current situation, is a laudable one. It’s a damn shame that something so short-sighted is having such a huge and negative impact on the organization and the recipients of its work.

What’s your take on all this fellow communicators? Please weigh in.



  1. Thank you for your thoughtful and insightful post. The Susan Koman Foundation also underestimated Planned Parenthood’s fast and powerful response to this situation. I heard about the defunding not from the news, but from Planned Parenthood’s CEO and the affiliate president in my geographic area who had been getting Koman funding. Over the past 20 years (at least), Planned Parenthood has defended itself against serious attacks from different groups and has learned important lessons it applies immediately, including springing into action. What Planned Parenthood’s opposition doesn’t recognize is the level of commitment we volunteers, staff members and patients have to Planned Parenthood’s core mission, which is reproductive health rights for men and women and basic health care for women and children. Way too many people have lost their lives for this cause, so we survivors act in their memories as well as for our goal to ensure basic health care services for those who either may not have private health care coverage or who may not be in a situation to use it.

  2. Thank YOU, Liz for your equally thoughtful and insightful comment! I agree that Planned Parenthood approached this situation much more effectively from an organizational communications perspective. Many of my online contacts have also noted that they received notification from Planned Parenthood directly of the defunding, along with a request for those supporters to donate to offset the Komen loss. The fact that the last estimate I’ve seen is that donations to PP have hit $680,000 in just a couple of days seems to clearly and decisively confirm the commitment you mention.

    Regardless of your position – and, in the interest of full disclosure, I should probably state that I am fully pro-choice, and supportive of Planned Parenthood and everything it stands for – it seems pretty clear which organization “gets” crisis communications and which one doesn’t!

  3. I did not realize Komen leaned to hard right wing core of the Republican party.

  4. Thank you for commenting Calvin. I think many people were surprised – and dismayed – to learn that politics was involved in this organization. Womens health shouldn’t be the ping-pong ball going back and forth between Democrats and Republicans.

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