Even in its reversal, Susan G. Komen’s crisis PR erred

The author calls the breast cancer foundations handling of this week’s Planned Parenthood announcements one of the worst acts of reputational recklessness ever.

After ensnaring itself in a major corporate crisis this week, the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation reversed its decision this morning after suffering overwhelmingly negative coverage—but it even got its reversal wrong.

On Tuesday, Komen appeared to have been caught flat-footed when news broke of its decision to defund Planned Parenthood. Komen’s inability to respond swiftly is particularly surprising given that they made their decision back in December. But in a New York Times story, Komen board member John Raffaelli offered some insight into what went wrong:

“Avoiding this kind of controversy was the very reason Komen chose a quiet ending to its relationship with Planned Parenthood.”

A “quiet” ending? Seriously, Komen? You couldn’t have anticipated that ending your relationship with Planned Parenthood, an organization that evokes incredibly strong emotions (both pro and con), might generate some controversy?

Komen’s decision to bury its head in the sand instead of breaking the news itself is one of the biggest acts of reputational recklessness I’ve seen. In fact, Komen’s initial crisis communications response violated all seven of the seven truths of a crisis.

Komen shouldn’t have waited for Planned Parenthood to break the news. It should have broken it themselves and helped to shape the media narrative. My strong suspicion is that Komen’s announcement still would have created a major controversy, but it wouldn’t have been this bad.

It could have pointed out, for example, that Komen gave Planned Parenthood just $700,000 of the $93 million it gave out in grants last year. It could have touted the vital work that the other $92.3 million dollars did last year. It could have expressed its deep commitment to continuing to help women who have benefitted from Planned Parenthood’s services and offered them some ideas about how to receive the care they so vitally need.

Today’s reversal

This morning, Komen released a statement reversing its initial decision. It’s a step in the right direction, but the statement itself violates at least three rules of crisis communications.

First, their statement is ambiguous. It reads:

“We will continue to fund existing grants, including those of Planned Parenthood, and preserve their eligibility to apply for future grants.”

What does that mean? Komen seems to be preserving its right to cut off Planned Parenthood’s funding again next year. That’s a non-committal statement, at best, and looks like a temporary salve.

Second, Komen CEO Nancy G. Brinker (sister of the late Susan G. Komen) wrote:

“We believe it is time for everyone involved to pause, slow down and reflect on how grants can most effectively and directly be administered without controversies that hurt the cause of women.”

Sorry, Ms. Brinker, but you’re hardly in a position to lecture your supporters right now. Instead of telling your supporters that they should “slow down,” you should only express your own commitment to getting this right.

Third, her awkward phrasing makes it look like Komen just wants to make this episode go away:

“We urge everyone who has participated in this conversation across the country over the last few days to help us move past this issue.”

Your supporters don’t want to “move past” this issue, Ms. Brinker. They want to be heard, reassured, communicated with, and respected.

Conservative groups are already denouncing the Komen Foundation’s decision to fund Planned Parenthood. Komen’s statement said that they “do not want our mission marred or affected by politics,” but it’s far too late for that. Its decision to defund Planned Parenthood made that impossible.

The Komen Foundation will now be seen by large swaths of the American public as either anti-abortion or pro-choice. For most of its history, Komen didn’t have to choose sides in that debate. But because of Komen’s lousy management decisions, the American people will now make that decision for them.

Visit the Mr. Media Training Blog to see the 21 Most Essential Media Training Links. Brad Phillips is the author of the Mr. Media Training Blog and president of Phillips Media Relations, which specializes in media and presentation training.


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