Komen’s Faulty PR Strategy

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Big news this week and I am not referring to the long-awaited Facebook IPO (although that is indeed big news). I am talking about the decision by Susan G. Komen for the Cure to end grants to Planned Parenthood while it is under investigation.

Before I go further, I want to acknowledge that the players and issues involved in this story are polarizing. After the AP broke the story, social networks “lit up” with comments running the gamut from anger to celebration and many leapt to transform this into a referendum on abortion. In no way am I commenting on that issue; instead, here is what matters to me.

Regardless of which side of the fence of the related debates you fall on, everyone deserves the right to receive screenings and treatment for cancer at the earliest opportunity. I should also disclose that I, my family and Waggener Edstrom Worldwide have been generous supporters of Komen and its work. For me, this is not a political debate: It is a health debate and a question on the role of communications in making huge policy decisions like this.

Komen says reports widely mischaracterize its motivation and that this is only a result of newly adopted and more stringent eligibility and performance criteria for community grants and is not politically motivated at all. Well, OK. My point of view is that the concept of adhering blindly to a policy, no matter the circumstances, is inflexible. It leaves little room for community engagement. And one of Komen’s greatest successes over the years is building its mission on the power of community.

It is also an example (I and others think) of communications not having a strong seat at the table that could have anticipated the response and counseled a more balanced course of action rather than depending on the black and white nature of a policy for air cover.

It is clear that Planned Parenthood is not standing still and has marshaled a response with a communications strategy at the forefront. In fact it looks to be quite nimble as the front page of its website now features stories of women who have benefited from early breast cancer screenings and Wednesday shared that in the 24 hours since Komen’s decision, it received donations in excess of $400,000 from 6,000 donors.

How many cycles will Komen spend on this until it bows to the pressure and changes its decision? There’s a common-sense principle at play where it can choose to amend its policy, make an exception or even reverse it. Certainly a strong communications sensibility would advise some change.

Social networks grant organizations a direct view into how people receive their actions. And although sometimes the reaction can be hard to hear, this is a good thing. I commend those organizations and companies that do indeed listen to, learn from, engage with and nimbly course correct based on what they hear from their publics or constituencies.

Perhaps if Komen approached the issue with a communications strategy to help engage the discussion and embrace the reaction, instead of as a tool to manage the outcome, it would be in a much different place — and thousands of women across the nation would not be worried about where they can turn for critical medical help.

Update (1 p.m. EST Feb. 3, 2012): POLITICO reports that Susan G. Komen has reversed its decision to cut funding to Planned Parenthood.

Melissa Waggener Zorkin is CEO of Waggener Edstrom Worldwide.

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Melissa Waggener Zorkin


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