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.