someecards.com - Thank you for cutting off funding to cancer screening programs in order to prove that you are pro-life.

Update at 11:40 am ET: Since this post was published, Komen has restored funding to Planned Parenthood, which you can read via this statement they released today. Special thanks to Jen Zingsheim for noting in the comments that she learned this via Jezebel, which is how I found out.

I’ve been fascinated by the way the Komen drama – over its new grant policies resulting in withdrawing funds for most of the Planned Parenthood programs that were formerly recipients – has been unfolding.

Kind of like watching a train wreck, isn’t it? That’s what it feels like to me, at least.

Before we go any further: I do care about women’s health (I have my own issues that I deal with every day), and have donated to Komen by supporting friends who’ve participated in their walks, but not directly. I have friends who’ve survived breast cancer (among other cancers). I briefly met Nancy Brinker some years ago, when I was a “scrub” on a client event, and the American Institute for Cancer Research is a former client.

But I’ve never bought into Komen’s “pink ribbon” deal, because its Goliath-like domination of the cause marketing world, not to mention the month of October, made me want to root for the underdog.

The first post I read was a couple of days ago, by Kivi Leroux Miller, on what she called the “accidental rebranding of Komen for the Cure.” Kivi has been keeping the post updated, and if you haven’t yet read it, I suggest you do. She says,

“This post is about what happens when a leading nonprofit jumps into a highly controversial area of public debate without a communications strategy, stays silent, and therefore lets others take over the public dialogue, perhaps permanently redefining the organization and its brand. Watch and learn, so you don’t make the same mistake on whatever hot button issues your organization might be wading into.”

Some of the other commentary/reporting/activity that has stayed with me:

Yesterday, Bill Sledzik also took a look at how this might change the way cause marketing is approached.

Beth Kanter, who got me involved in the Komen Kan Kiss My Mammogram! cause that Allison Fine created, set up and then invited me to join her Pinterest board of the same name, as an exercise in “Pinactivism.” In her post, Beth also touched on “newsjacking” and Komen’s ham-handed handling of the issue thus far, though it seems someone at their Communication team has finally been woken up (or fired-and-hired).

Beth Kanter's Pinterest board on Komen/Planned Parenthood

Nancy Schwartz has been writing a series on Komen’s “busted brand.” And Joe Waters wrote a terrific rant on why “Komen sucks… but so do you.

There’s no point in my rehashing what some very smart people have already said, but I will say this:

1. Transparency is everything

Yesterday, I tried to give Komen the benefit of the doubt. I thought, “Let’s assume that all this is indeed the result of new granting rules.” So I went onto their website (couldn’t even load the blog, still can’t), to read what those policies were, and what they are. After all, surely they’d be on the site, right?

Nope. At least, I haven’t been able to find them, and I spent a lot of time looking.

Finally, I clicked through to some of their affiliate sites, and there they were. But why isn’t there at least an overview of their old and new grant policies on the main site?

Had Komen posted this when its board voted to do this, as the New York Times reported, at least they would have had their own point of view on record before they had to resort – late – to the video response from Nancy Brinker.

2. Staying on message doesn’t help if you don’t address what people really want to know

In all their statements, Twitter responses (again, late), and so on, Komen has tried to reiterate that their decision is not about politics, and that they are staying true to their mission.

Komen on Twitter

That’s all well and good, but what people really want to know is why Planned Parenthood has been singled out; yesterday Mother Jones reported that Penn State appears to be in violation of Komen’s new grant policy.

If Komen had been upfront earlier – on its website – with exactly what this new policy is, then it might douse some of the flames. Note, I said “might.” But now, by digging their heels into the sand, all that’s happening is that we (at least, most of us) are taking their position with a huge sack of salt.

3. Walk the talk

The NYT article I referenced earlier quotes a Komen board member:

“The organization’s longtime support of Planned Parenthood had already cost it some support from anti-abortion forces, Mr. Raffaelli said. But the board feared that charges that Komen supported organizations under federal investigation for financial improprieties could take a further and unacceptable toll on donations, he said. ‘People don’t understand that a Congressional investigation doesn’t necessarily mean a problem of substance,’ Mr. Raffaelli said. ‘When people read about it in places like Texarkana, Tex., where I’m from, it sounds really bad.’ “

So what is this really about, then? Is it about staying true to its mission, as Brinker has repeatedly tried to say, or is it about assuaging those for whom it “sounds really bad”… and not losing significant donor dollars in the process?

And if, according to one of Komen’s own board members, “a Congressional investigation doesn’t necessarily mean a problem of substance,” why not try to educate those who might not understand this, instead of throwing a single – as seems to be the case – organization under the bus?

4. Punxsutawney Phil or not, prediction is part of the job

Yesterday, Dan Cohen published a terrific guest post here on WUL riffing off of Groundhog Day, where he made the point that “communication is more about mastery than about prediction.”

Yes. But, as I noted in my comment on the post, that mastery also means that we develop the ability to anticipate how our publics are going to react and, therefore, plan and act accordingly.

I don’t know who runs Komen’s communications, but boy, have they been asleep on the job. Especially given how acrimonious conversations around Planned Parenthood can get, how could they not have anticipated what would happen… and prepared for it?

Perhaps they did, and were shot down by senior leadership… I don’t know. But whatever happened or, rather, didn’t happen, I’m left with the impression that Komen was so convinced of its own invincibility, thanks to its ocean of pink ribbons, that it simply never assumed people would take it to task.

Did you see Andrea Mitchell grill Brinker on MSNBC (Kivi linked to it in her post as well)?

Note how Sen. Boxer says, “to change the story is not going to work.” That’s exactly what I mean in #2 above. Brinker stuck stubbornly to her point, and to me it was pretty sad that only at the end of the interview did she acknowledge “communication issues.”

I don’t know if the furor would have not have raged as high had there been some forethought put into how Komen would communicate the new policy. But at least they would have had a shot at shaping the public dialog. No matter what happens hereon out, this is one battle they’ve lost.

5. If your affiliates are distancing themselves from you, you need to worry

When I couldn’t find anything about the Komen grant policies on its main site, I clicked through to a couple of its affiliate sites, as I said.

And while I found the policies there, what really struck me was the lengths Komen Maryland went to to distance itself from the national organization’s policy:

“The new granting criteria announced by Susan G. Komen for the Cure® that now makes Planned Parenthood ineligible for funding was a decision made on the national level. Many of the Komen and Planned Parenthood partnerships that began in 2005 provide women in remote areas with access to breast health services. To date, Komen Maryland has not received a grant application from Planned Parenthood requesting financial assistance.”

Several of the other affiliate sites don’t have as current statements (or any), but if you look at their Facebook pages, you can see how they are trying very hard to reassure their fans that they weren’t part of this decision-making process while trying to toe the party line.

Komen Connecticut:

Komen CT on new national grant policy

Komen Charlotte:

Komen Charlotte on the new national grants policy

Komen Northern Nevada:

Komen Northern Nevada on new national grants policy

Several of the other affiliates are toeing the party line, but when your chapters are trying to convince their stakeholders that even though they’re you, they’re not really you, you have a problem.

6. Pull your head out of the sand and reply

This point has been made over and over and over again. And yes, I will say it too: replying to your audiences, inquiries, even attacks, is not an option. Today, conversation is the norm.

Komen was exceedingly late out of the gate in its responses. It’s been roundly criticized for that, as it should be, and yesterday, when I couldn’t find information on their grants on the main site, I wrote into the “media” email address, asking for a link. I still haven’t received it.

Perhaps as a tiny blogger I didn’t warrant attention from the media department. The problem is that no matter how tiny we are, we’re all connected in some way, shape or form, to people who might listen to us. And if enough of us make a noise, that can cause problems… and you might get “newsjacked,” as Beth mentions in her post.

Planned Parenthood, on the other hand, gets that. It walked all over Komen with the way it went straight to the people, generating not just media and public attention, but more support and donations.

7. What goes online doesn’t stay in Vegas

One thread of the still-unfolding story is that Komen’s new policy has been driven in large part by its SVP for Public Policy, a former Georgia gubernatorial candidate who has been vocal about the fact that she doesn’t support Planned Parenthood (see the Atlantic story that ran yesterday).

Brinker and others have denied this with the “it’s not about politics” line.

But the problem is that Karen Handel, the SVP in question, seems to have been a little too click-happy in retweeting this:

Karen Handel's retweet

Once you’ve seen this, does it really matter what Ms. Brinker, Mr. Raffaelli (as quoted in the NYT) or anyone else at Komen says about the new policy not being politically motivated?

I searched for the tweet in Ms. Handel’s profile, but couldn’t find it, so I assume she deleted it. However, thanks to @WentRogue‘s Twitpic, there is now a permanent record of it.

What goes online doesn’t stay in Vegas.

I told you at the outset of this post

that I’ve always viewed Komen’s marketing machine with some skepticism. That does not take away from the fact that I believe there are many, many well-intentioned, sincere people working at the organization, and that regardless of how they’ve done it, they’ve brought huge awareness to the issue of breast cancer.

It makes me sad that they are probably feeling really upset right now, and fighting their own internal battles because of the ham-handed way this issue has been managed. Or, I should say, mismanaged.

And it makes mes sad to see how crushed the men and women who have supported Komen are.

Is Komen going anywhere? Probably not. Will Planned Parenthood find a way to cultivate the groundswell of supporters it has gained in the last couple of days? I hope so.

But regardless of the organizations involved, and the politics that may or may not be involved, I hope you will remember that breast cancer is a big issue, and find a way to talk about and support efforts to cure it.

I also hope that if you work for or with a non-profit organization, you’ll use this post, those I’ve referenced and what I’m sure will be many more to run, to put together your own crisis communication plan well before you need it.

And oh! I have my first mammogram next Friday. Wish me luck, won’t you?

At almost 2,000 words, I’ve certainly had my say! What’s yours? I’d love to know. And many thanks to several non-profit/social media friends who shared links online that helped me put this post together.

Shonali Burke
Founder and publisher of Waxing UnLyrical, Shonali Burke helps purpose-driven brands bring big ideas to life. She teaches at The Johns Hopkins University, has gone back to school herself with the Harvard Business Analytics Program, and is creator/lead instructor at The Social PR Virtuoso® online training hub , where ambitious PR pros learn how to unleash their inner Social PR superheroes. Owned by Lola the Basset Hound, she's mad about ABBA, bacon, cooking, dogs, and Elvis, though not necessarily in that order. Wouldn't you like to be in her kitchen?
Shonali Burke
Shonali Burke

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