The Komen Fiasco: A Branding and PR Disaster

The dust has barely settled in the Komen/Planned Parenthood debacle, but the one thing that is clear is Komen – founded in 1982 – has in one brief moment, jeopardized thirty years of positive brand-building; Komen’s brand today is just not the same brand it was only one week ago. And if you care about the causes Komen supports, this is not a good thing.

The lessons for other organizations to absorb are numerous.

The story begins just days before Christmas where, as The New York Times reports, Komen informed Planned Parenthood (PP) of their decision – one which they had actually been discussing for months. At the same time they notified PP, Komen decided not to speak of the decision – not to other grantees, not to their donors and not to the media. Komen’s strategy was if they didn’t speak about it, it’s not a story (management misstep #1). In fact, one can just wonder if the following week Nancy Goodman Brinker, Komen’s founder, was rejoicing in the apparent silence of the forest. As it turns out, Komen was so tone-deaf to their own grantees, they were oblivious to the offensive Planned Parenthood was preparing to launch.

And when PP did launch, a firestorm reigned down on a very unprepared Komen (management misstep #2). For not only did Komen do a pitiful job in explaining their decision, they demonstrated they had no idea of how news spreads in the 21st century (management misstep #3); no understanding of the Internet; and by taking sides in a very public hot-button political issue, they were actually changing their mission by fiat (management misstep #4).

Unfortunately, Komen is not alone as an organization unprepared to handle a public relations crisis. And as we all know, disaster often strikes when we least expect.

In trying to be as prepared as possible, Gail Hyman previously shared thoughts on basics we need to keep in mind:

  • Start with the clear understanding that your reputation is your most treasured asset and that it is now and forever (if it hadn’t been before) your highest priority.
  • Assess your exposure fully and with all due speed. That translates into quickly pulling your volunteer and professional leadership together to gather all the facts and determine your potential vulnerabilities.
  • Determine your “worst case” scenario and work from there to plan your communications/reputation management strategy.
  • Coordinate with legal counsel to assure your approach and messages do not do any harm.
  • Determine who needs to know; what they deserve to know; and how to sequence and execute the communications.
  • Plan any communications with an eye toward potential media inquiries, especially in this 24/7, blogger-centric environment. Assume the media will always try to beat you with the breaking news and decide if that matters to your organization.
  • Imagine what the media might say and be prepared with your own story line (truthful, straightforward, brief) and answers to their most likely questions.
  • Identify one key senior spokesperson whose reputation and manner communicate honesty and trust.
  • Determine how a negative press story might impact your normal business operations and plan accordingly.
  • Engage professional public relations crisis communications counsel if warranted to prepare and manage with you a weekly communications strategy and plan. Give them 24/7 access to all information and your key people.

Of course, one of the key ingredients to dealing successfully with a public relations crisis, is having in place an ongoing media strategy that can be fired-up on demand and utilized to tell the organizations’ story. And here, some of the heavy-weight organizations on the North American communal landscape – including Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) and JNF-USA – fall flat on their face, with absolutely no ongoing outreach to the media. But, that’s a story for a separate post.

At Komen, despite their end-of-week backtracking, this story is not going away – perhaps off page one, but – for now – no further.

So, today, before a crisis hits, look at your own organization, and see if you can answer these two key questions:

  • Are you prepared to quickly and professionally respond if disaster falls?
  • Does your organization have an appropriate media outreach strategy in place?

If the answer to both questions is not yes, you have work to do. Komen has, not by their choice, provided a great case study of what “not to do” in managing PR and media relations.

You should not follow in their footsteps.