Why I think most are wrong about the Komen Foundation’s “mistakes”

I’ve really been struggling with this one. Something is amiss here. I’ve read lots and lots of comments from PR and crisis communication practitioner’s about how badly Komen screwed up their PR and crisis communications. Some even seem to think that Founder and CEO Nancy Brinker’s swept back hair and somewhat haughty demeanor in her response interview are to blame for this crisis.

I think we have to get real here. This is about a deep cultural divide in our nation. This is the same problem that Lowe’s ran into when it decided to sponsor a TV show about American Muslim’s, then changed its mind. Everyone seems to be seeing these crises as screw-ups in PR. And while I agree that given the nature of today’s hyper-networked world and how these things can spin out of control PR professionals need more than ever to be at the table when these decisions are made, I think we are missing the key issues by focusing on them as PR disasters.

1. Our nation is deeply divided on important social issues.

The Susan G. Komen, like the Lowe’s issue, and numerous others I could point out are esssentially about important social issues today: abortion vs. pro-life, gay rights vs. traditional family values, unfettered scientific research vs. right to life issues, and on and on. These can be seen as liberal vs. conservative, progressive vs. reactionary, religious vs. secular. Any organization getting caught up in the middle of these very volatile issues will find themselves in no man’s land. They will get caught in the crossfire between two deeply impassioned warring camps. One of the big mistakes that crisis pundits are missing is that Komen was already embedded in this no man’s land by funding Planned Parenthood. PP is a red flag to the bulls of the pro-life movement. PP, according to Wikipedia, is the largest provider of abortions in the US, performing 330,000 in 2009, generating income of $165 million dollars. Now, I realize I’m talking mostly to people who are not on the pro-life side of the debate. But just imagine for a moment, that you are one of the majority of American’s deeply concerned about abortions and even consider (like our courts do) that taking the life of an unborn baby is murder. That makes PP responsible for 300,000 murders in their eyes. And the $165 million blood money of the worst kind. Please understand before you react to this perspective. I am only pointing out that a very large number of Americans have a visceral reaction against Planned Parenthood and this reality likely played a significant role in the discussions at Komen about what to do about their PP grants.

2. The connection between business and cultural values including social issues is more important than ever.

It might be easy to say that, well, given this divide and the passions involved businesses just need to stay out of social issues. But that doesn’t work, because the sense is growing deeper and deeper that business is more than about making money. CEOs and leaders who do not acknowledge that their business choices affect the world in multiple ways are ignoring reality as well as the deepening cultural viewpoint that social consciousness in business leadership is essential. We see this mostly in the widespread adoption of the green movement, but business policies bear on these other social issues as well. Nearly every company or organization needs to make HR decisions, healthcare coverage decisions, purchase decisions that reflect or can be interpreted as reflecting one side or the other on this cultural divide. My wife has a strong affinity for a brand of candle holders. But that loyalty was shaken when she saw the way they were tying sales of these products to social causes that were opposed to her personal values. The dilemma is we can’t avoid social issue entanglement, but there be dragons there.

3. The internet community or the hyper-networked activists are demonstrating overweening power (dictionary: Showing excessive confidence or pride)

I believe there is something called “the internet.” The internet is not a person, or even a cohesive group. But on a number of important issues lately, the individuals I am referring to collectively as “the internet” has demonstrated immense power. One can say “the internet” was behind the Arab Spring. One can clearly see “the internet” staring down Congress and Congress blinked on SOPA and PIPA. Sen Reid’s actions in trying to push a procedural vote in a hurry seemed to be a message that said: “We’ll show you who is running the country.” But, it was “the internet” who showed him. I attribute “the internet” to Netflix backing down from their Qwikster disaster. Also for Bank of America backing off their debit card fees, Verizon backing off their online payment fees. Lowe’s ran into “the internet” on the issue mentioned earlier and Komen Foundation is battling “the internet” right now.

We can say that this is just social media at work. Somehow I think there is more to it. “The internet” is more than the sum total of people participating on the internet. It is more values driven than that, it is far more politically correct, it is far more homegenous. It is not a reflection of the vast diversity of ideas and viewpoints reflected in our society and it certainly doesn’t operate like that. But it, whatever “it” is, is incredibly powerful, and (I hate to use this word), empowered. It knows its strength now like never before. That is why I think Komen will continue to struggle. Those whom “the internet” has identified as public enemies will not easily be forgiven. They will seek to destroy them. Such is also the character of the online community that fits into this category. That is what I mean by overweening.

4. The internet community most vocal in these events does not represent the rest of the country or even close to a balance.

This is the part that most concerns me. The pundits commenting on the horrible crisis disaster of Komen seem to think that Komen violated some universal American values. As I pointed out above, the decision to remove funding violated the values of “the internet,” clearly, but not necessarily the values of the majority of Americans. But one would not know that the storm the decision and its reversal created.

One other clear example of how “the internet” does not reflect more common American ideas and attitudes. I did a bit of research on Reddit as I became interested in this through my son doing an AMA. I noticed from Wikipedia how Reddit had facilitated contributions to charities with sub-reddits from the atheist community, the Christian community and the Islamic sub-reddit. The effort, in December 2010 raised $200,000 for Doctors with Borders and World Vision (a Christian relief agency). The Wikipedia article noted that the vast majority of contributions came from the atheist sub-reddit. Now, is this because atheists are much better contributors to charities. No, as plenty of reports will show. It does suggest, however, that the atheist community is far more active and engaged on Reddit than the Christian community is. Atheists represent about 10% of the population, where those self-identifying as Christians represent upwards of 70 to 75%. However, if you want to know what “the internet” looks like in terms of hyper-connectedness, values, priorities, political leanings, you can’t do much better than spend a few hours reading the comments on Reddit.

We live in a democracy in which majority rules and some of our most cherished cultural values and institutions are built on the premise that above all we must avoid the tyranny of the minority. But with real power being shown in brute ways by “the internet” I believe we all have reason to be concerned about this kind of unrepresentative tyranny emerging. No doubt “the internet” will disagree with me and all of us instinctively believe that our views, as sensible and rational as they are, are shared by the vast majority of the rest of the world, and so will think I am out to lunch in suggesting “the internet’s” views are not reflective of all Americans.

But I want to raise a flag of caution here. There is much more to these crises than merely violating basic laws of crisis communication as I have seen stated over and over. The problem is much deeper, and if we as communicators can’t or won’t understand that, we won’t be much help in the boardroom when we finally get invited in.



8 thoughts on “Why I think most are wrong about the Komen Foundation’s “mistakes””

  1. Great post, Gerald. And I’m in complete agreement. The tagline of my blog is “in today’s world, what you say is as important as what you do,” for exactly this reason. How your choice or direction or operation is played out is just slightly more important than how it’s perceived anymore.

    And another example of point #4. Gap went through a little brouhaha over its logo recently. The internet HATED it. And they made it known to the point that Gap rolled it back and stuck with their existing logo. And then Gap surveyed their customers to see what they thought of the brouhaha. And by and large, none of them had heard a peep about it. I recall reading somewhere that a number of those surveyed actually liked the new logo.

  2. Great post Gerald. Every organization has a list of smoldering crises. Each needs to evaluate their list and compare it to their own smoldering issues, which will be impacted my money and public opinion.

    For any organization, I say the key is congruency. Make sure your actions match your beliefs and words. If they do, then defend your belief system with the correct words and be prepared to face various consequences as you stand up for your beliefs.

    If you anticipate the impact and take action then you have managed your crisis.

  3. Gerald you are right on target. The “liberal news media” used to define reality now the Internet and it’s opinion makers do.

  4. Hi Gerald,

    As you know, I love giving the contrarian viewpoint. So I’ll keep that tradition here.

    First off, (this point isn’t contrarian, just informational) … a couple of clarifying points of fact, from the American Religious Identification Survey (conducted by Dr. Barry Kosmin of Trinity College in Hartford, CT), published March 2009…

    The “Nones” (meaning those folks who self-identify as having no religious preference, agnostic, or atheist) comprised 15 percent of the US population in 2008. (Full disclosure: I am in this category).

    Total US Christian population in 2008 was 76 percent (25.1 percent Catholic and 50.9 percent other Christian).

    For reference purposes, the same survey found that the US population was comprised of the following percentages in a few other groups that are much discussed in the media:

    Mormon/LDS: 1.4 percent
    Muslim: 0.6 percent
    Jewish: 1.2 precent

    Now about SGK/PP media firestorm:

    I think the most interesting thing about how this whole SGK/PP issue played out is how vocal the opponents of SGK’s policy change were. The main issue, as I saw it, was about women’s health. By far the biggest portion of PP’s dollars go toward preventing unwanted pregnancies (contrasted with only 3 percent of their funding going toward providing abortions.) And in truth, Planned Parenthood prevents far more abortions than it provides. And yet, the anti-choice groups are focused entirely on this comparatively small 3 percent of overall activity. PP is a very visible organization, and they are engaged in something that is very polarizing. However,

    SGK didn’t give money to PP in order to fund abortions. SGK has been reasonably apolitical since the beginning, and helped shape the public dialogue about women’s health by keeping their focus solidly on breast cancer screening, prevention and treatment. Their funding of PP was targeted at and used for cancer screening, something completely within SGK’s mission and purview.

    From my perspective, screening for cancer heartily qualifies entirely as a pro-life activity. I mean cancer kills. A lot. If you can prevent cancer by early detection, you’re helping to save lives. I would think that, regardless of political or religious affiliation, we’re all “Pro-” saving the lives of women. PP is one of the largest providers of cancer screening in the US. Many of their clients are low-income women who simply would not get screening if it weren’t for the services provided by PP. So unless a group has something against low-income women, I would think that any group that purports to be interested in saving lives would be interested in providing financial support directly to those organizations who provide services to the neediest people in our country.

    I believe there’s something in Matthew 25:40 about doing things for the least of us …

  5. Brian makes excellent points re: the basic facts of the situation.

    Interestingly, the conversation on your blog is so far among men. But by and large, the “internet” conversation has been among women – after all, we’re the ones who are (mostly) affected.

    The central issue is that SGK was perceived to be bowing to pressure from one anti-choice / pro-life employee … and they momentarily lost the focus on keeping women healthy.

    I would imagine that you’ve written many times on the importance of remaining true to one’s mission as well as brand. SGK forgot that.

  6. Great points and great discussion. One salient point that keeps coming up is being true to your mission and here is where SGK needs to focus to recover. I think the real problem emerging for them however is the collateral damage of people realizing how inefficient they are in delivering money they raise for research. Like so many organizations like this, they got bloated with success and now many are realizing how much of the money they raise goes to pay salaries, overhead, etc. That will hurt them more than the crisis that started this.
    One comment on PP funding. Other research I read makes it clear that PP co-mingles funds. They get tax dollars, they get contributions like that from SGK which is targeted for mammograms (a very good thing I agree Brian) but without clear separation of funds and much more transparent disclosure of the separation, they are going to have problems with those who feel strongly about abortion having any money go there. That is a reality that SGK faced. My main point in all this however is that “the internet” doesn’t reflect the diversity of values in our society, but it has clout that makes the promotion of those values far more significant than they would be based on sheer numbers.

  7. I’m late to this discussion and a first-time commenter, but I wanted to chime in.

    I’m a pro-life Catholic. I want to disclose that at the outset. Personally, I saw more supportive messages from my 440+ Facebook friends of the original SGK decision than many out there in the “internet” ever saw. Along with most of them, I’d love to see Planned Parenthood defunded. I agree with Gerald’s assessment: to me, those statistics are about human lives taken, and 330,000 is not an insignificant number, not in the slightest.

    But SGK handled this terribly. There was no apparent communications strategy, which is inexcusable. Let’s assume they made the decision to defund PP for ethical reasons, as they originally implied. Where was the list of other defunded organizations? Did their policy only impact one organization, and they thought nobody would notice?

    Another hypothetical: what if they made this decision for scientific or medical reasons? They should have the talking points to back that up and assuage their pro-abortion supporters. Say they were sitting on some indisputable research proving the (oft-disputed) link between abortion and breast cancer. Where was it? Or what if they discovered that Planned Parenthood wasn’t using the money they were receiving to provide the services SGK supports. Couldn’t there have been a statement to that effect? Something along the lines of, “Planned parenthood received nearly $700K in grants from us last year, but provided only X screenings for breast cancer…”

    At the time, PP said they’ve done over 170K breast exams over the past five years. How many exams a year should $700K provide? Also, were these donor-restricted funds – to be used only for specific purposes but some of which was actually put toward abortion or contraceptives? (If so, there may be a legal case there. Which could potentially speak to the silence, but still not a good way to handle it. A non-specific mention of pending litigation or investigation takes the onus off of SGK.) These were all talking points they could have worked from if their reasoning was sound and they were prepared to have a dialog.

    If they made the more unthinkable mistake of defunding PP for political or ideological reasons, they should have anticipated the backlash and been prepared to speak to it, while embracing the pro-lifers they were sure to please with the move. Their donations were up 100% in the ensuing days from pro-life sources, but that was only until SGK reversed their decision. At that point, neither side trusted them.

    Their actions and lack of communication made their pro-abortion supporters furious and their pro-life supporters (the thoughtful ones anyway) confused about the sudden shift, and the motivations behind it.

    I agree that the internet represents a distortion of views. As a tech-savvy, pro-life, religious, libertarian kind of guy, I’ve always been in a minority online. And I’ve usually been able to get along with many of them just fine – or at least hold my own in a debate on the hot topics.

    When Komen made what was certain to be a hotly controversial decision, they needed to be aware of the stakes, and to be prepared for not only this reaction, but this audience. They weren’t, and it may have cost them the farm.

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