Lessons from a tattered pink ribbon

There is an old axiom that states, "It takes years to build a reputation and only hours to destroy one." These words are a cautionary tale for the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation and the controversy surrounding its decision to end its funding for Planned Parenthood.

There is an old axiom that states, “It takes years to build a reputation and only hours to destroy one.” These words are a cautionary tale for the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation and the controversy surrounding its decision to end its funding for Planned Parenthood.

It has been nearly two months since the foundation announced its decision and then quickly reversed itself amid a firestorm of protest. The fallout has been devastating and shows little sign of abating. Most recently, the chairman of Komen's board resigned his post, and key executives at the affiliate and the national level have stepped down as well. Fundraising is in a free fall, with the New York affiliate postponing two events “because we were not certain of our ability to fundraise in the near term,” according to spokesperson Vern Calhoun.

How could an organization as media savvy as Komen get so blindsided?

The foundation was clearly caught off guard by the ferocious response to what it considered a reasonable policy decision. Putting aside the political issues of its actions, there are some crisis management takeaways that all organizations should heed:

Don't underestimate the power of social media. It was the explosion in the blog world that elevated this decision to mainstream news. Had the reaction not been as virulent, the story would not have been catapulted to “page one” prominence. The ability of social media to mobilize for advocacy was profoundly demonstrated.

Always prepare a crisis plan. Affiliates claimed Komen had no crisis plan, and as a result, the organization was caught flat-footed. The policy arena of healthcare is so fraught with potential issues that it is critical for any organization to have a crisis preparedness plan in place.

Maintain message consistency. When the Komen story broke, president Nancy Brinker said during a morning show interview that Karen Handel, the head of policy who purportedly pushed for the funding change, “had nothing to do with the decision.” But in a Fox TV interview, Handel said she was deeply involved. Contradictory messages hugely damage credibility and make restoring trust that much more difficult.

Prepare stakeholders in advance. Komen staff and its affiliates were caught off guard by the policy change, and several individuals resigned immediately in protest. Any decision at this level, and with so much potential for controversy, should have been shared with internal audiences first. Internal stakeholders and outside advocates should understand the organization's position so they are in a position to defend it.

The Komen organization has one of the strongest brands in healthcare, but the road to restoring complete trust in the organization will be a long one. Reputation building is not only necessary with external stakeholders but also within the organization. To its credit, the foundation is addressing the need to make structural changes to give affiliates a bigger voice in decision-making.

The biggest challenge in the months ahead will be to shore up loyalty with a vast donor base that has been shaken by the controversy. According to a March 21 Washington Post article, staff members have been asked to review budgets for the fiscal year beginning April 1 because of an anticipated drop in revenue.

Despite these challenges, the foundation will survive based on the very substantive contributions made to breast cancer advocacy and research. This is the final lesson in crisis management – the “good will” equity that an organization has built before a crisis is very much key to rebuilding after one.  

Nancy Hicks is SVP in Ketchum's Washington office. She also serves as associate director of the agency's North American healthcare practice and is co-author of Healthcare Industry Communications: New Media, New Methods, New Message, published in late 2011.

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