Last week, I had the honor of delivering a keynote address at the American Marketing Association Nonprofit Marketing Conference in Washington, DC. My topic was crisis communication, and as a focal example for my talk I used the incident earlier this year with the Susan G. Komen Foundation and Planned Parenthood.
Reputational crises are especially insidious for nonprofits, especially in a time when many people are hard-pressed to scrounge up discretionary cash for charitable giving. Not only is a nonprofit organization wholly dependent on its reputation when appealing to supporters, but those who donate typically do so because of some deeply held values they believe are reflected in the organization. When you play a role in someone’s construction of self, you are particularly vulnerable when something happens that changes their perception of you. And when you are as large and encompassing as the Komen Foundation, with such a capillary structure, any highly visible policy change is likely to displease some number of stakeholders.
In Komen’s case, the way they handled the media storm provoked when Associated Press first announced the decision on January 31st—no initial response, a couple of brief press releases simply stating that the decision was not politically motivated, as many claimed, and then a reversal of the decision (followed shortly by the resignation of their chief policy officer) a mere three days later—served to alienate stakeholders on all sides of the issue, and inadvertently gave weight to their detractors’ claims.
I mentioned in my talk that high-profile crises are like zombies: they never really die, but once they’re “over” they continue to lurk around the Internet and the mainstream media in an undead state. Search culture ensures that coverage of the crisis will remain just a Google away, influencing perceptions of the organization indefinitely. What’s more, whenever the organization finds itself at the center of another controversy, or a situation arises that shares some points of comparison, they are resuscitated in sidebars and backgrounders, moving into the public conversation once more.
In the shorter term, the Foundation appears to be suffering some lingering negative effects from the crisis, nearly six months later. Participation in the Race for the Cure is down by as much as 30% in many areas. In March, The Daily Beast reported that the organization was forced to cancel its annual National Lobby Day, a major event that brought activists and survivors to Washington to advocate for stronger national programs to support breast cancer education, prevention, and treatment.
Komen affiliates are working hard to reassure their local supporters that funds raised remain in the area and are not sent to the Foundation’s main headquarters. Many of these affiliates are struggling to continue to provide services, caught as they are between diminishing grant funds at the national level and hesitant local donors.
In my address to the AMA nonprofits, I emphasized the importance of taking a big-picture view when planning communication strategy. Komen appeared to have been caught off guard by the firestorm, which is surprising. I suspect the Foundation was lulled into complacency when there was no immediate reaction to their decision in late 2011. Even so, had they been paying attention to the larger cultural context, they might have been prepared for controversy and developed appropriate communication strategies. A few key trends that probably influenced public reactions to the decision:
- the fact that the US is in the middle of a highly polarized presidential campaign season, so that people are more prone than usual to look for and ascribe partisan political motives to actions that run counter to their beliefs;
- the fact that healthcare issues are at the forefront of public discourse and debate, in particular questions of access by less privileged segments of the population to preventive care;
- the ongoing economic recession, which has heightened tensions regarding the aforementioned access to healthcare, as well as contributed to a sense of “class warfare” in the United States and elsewhere (evidenced by, among other things, the Occupy movement);
- media discourse alternately condemning and denying the existence of a politically motivated “war on women”;
- growing backlash against the “pink movement” and accusations of “pinkwashing,” leading to a sense of fatigue and increasingly public criticism of the breast cancer movement in some quarters.
Crises don’t happen in a vacuum. It’s easy for organizations to get caught up in a narrow view of their own goals and objectives, but forgetting the broader landscape can lead to serious consequences. All of these factors should have been taken into consideration by Komen when strategizing about how to communicate their decision to the public. Which, actually, they never did—the left the news to be “uncovered” by the media, without taking the opportunity to clearly explain to stakeholders why the decision was made and how it fit into the nonprofit’s larger mission. This oversight suggests that the Foundation’s leadership didn’t expect a controversial reaction to their change in policy, a position that seems surprisingly naive for such a sophisticated organization.
I love working with nonprofit organizations in general, and I think crisis communication is an area particularly ripe for discussion. Based on the great conversations I had with attendees during and after my session, it seems a lot of people working in nonprofits agree. Aside from my own contribution to the proceedings, I thought the AMA Nonprofit Marketing Conference was a terrific event, and wish I’d been able to attend more of the sessions. Talking to professionals in the field serves as a good reminder that academic research in applied communication has potentially important practical ramifications, and motivates me to seek out more opportunities for collaboration.