February 03, 2012

Recovering From a Public-Relations Scandal: Tips for Komen

One of the nation’s biggest charities, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, today sought to regain support by reversing its controversial decision to eliminate grants to Planned Parenthood. But some fundraising and marketing experts predict that the organization faces a long battle to soothe angry donors, many of whom said they will never support the charity again.

“There is no question they have lost some donors for good,” says Kivi Leroux Miller, a nonprofit marketing consultant.

Many donors, she says, were already put off by Komen’s handling of other issues, such as a 2010 fundraising arrangement with KFC, which was criticized for promoting unhealthy foods linked to cancer. For such donors, Ms. Miller says, “this was the last straw.”

Comments on social-media sites seem to bear her out. “I’m glad that Komen reversed [its] funding decision, but I got to say, I really can’t imagine my dollars going to #komen anymore,” wrote one observer on Twitter.

Donors are disillusioned because of the way Komen handled the controversial issue, Ms. Miller and other public-relations experts say.

After news reports came out on Tuesday about the decision to eliminate Planned Parenthood grants, Komen was slow to respond, “They just went dark and were silent at the height of the crisis,” Ms. Miller says. She says that she counted 80 Twitter comments criticizing Komen for every comment supporting the organization’s new policy.

Fundraising Bonanza

The controversy has been a fundraising bonanza for Planned Parenthood. In just four days, Planned Parenthood raised nearly $3-million, more than enough to cover the $500,000 to $700,000 it has received annually from Komen. Many of the 10,000 donors who gave in the last few days had never previously supported the charity.

News reports say Komen has raised more money, too, but repeated calls from The Chronicle to the charity were not returned.

 In an interview, Ms. Miller discussed what Komen and other charities can learn about handling a crisis and what Komen should do next to assuage supporters:

Get a consistent story line. When Komen did speak out about the Planned Parenthood decision, the organization kept changing its story, says Ms. Miller. In its first announcement about Planned Parenthood, Komen said that it would no longer support the group because of a new policy barring grants to organizations under investigation. It noted that a Congressional investigation is under way into whether Planned Parenthood has used any government money for abortions, a charge it denies.

Later, in a televised interview on MSNBC with Andrea Mitchell, Nancy Brinker, founder of the breast-cancer charity, said that the decision to stop giving money to Planned Parenthood was part of Komen’s effort to channel support to organizations that provide direct services to women, rather than referrals for mammograms that Planned Parenthood sometimes offers.

But her remarks conflicted with a New York Times article in which a Komen board member told reporters that the charity had changed its grant-making policy specifically to end its relationship with Planned Parenthood.

“It was a disaster,” says Ms. Miller. The story “played into everyone’s fears and proved that everyone was right” about the Planned Parenthood decision being politically motivated, she says. “That makes it even worse.”

Make senior-management changes. The charity needs to diversify its board and senior leadership, Ms. Miller says.

“Through this whole debacle, we see that they are led by some politically conservative individuals” such as Ms. Brinker, who served as ambassador to Hungary under President George W. Bush, and Karen Handel, senior vice president for public policy, an abortion foe who has spoken out against Planned Parenthood. “If they want to depoliticize it now,” she says, “they have to show balanced leadership and hire some progressives.”

Get smart about social media. In the first 48 hours after news of the Planned Parenthood cut-off broke, Komen’s primary response to criticism online was to remove negative comments from its Facebook page. Instead, it should have been doing more to shape its own message, Ms. Miller says.

Learn from criticism. Komen should carefully examine all comments people were making online and in the news this week. Many of the negative statements had nothing to do with Planned Parenthood but underscore other issues that could hurt Komen’s image, she notes.

“They need to do a full-blown autopsy,” says Ms. Miller. “They need to make really substantive changes and be very public so we see a new Komen after this.”