Rob Coleman

Crisis Mode

In Crisis Communications on February 9, 2012 at 12:46 pm

Much has been written about the PR maneuverings in the Planned Parenthood vs. Susan G. Komen kerfuffle. There are some great lessons to be learned by communications professionals, as we review the winner and loser in this story. (Need the background on this story? Read it here.)

From the outset, the PR team at Planned Parenthood drove this story, both through social channels and traditional print and broadcast networks. They created the narrative, while the Susan G. Komen Foundation apparently hoped it would go away quietly. As a result, the talking heads and opinion leaders had no shortage of Planned Parenthood spokespeople at their disposal for interviews. The Komen people issued a statement.

Komen was caught flat-footed, while the nimble PR professionals at Planned Parenthood were out in full force. The question is how Komen didn’t see this coming? Anyone taking a stand in the abortion debate is engaging in the most divisive issue of the past two generations. And to most of America, Planned Parenthood means just one thing….abortion clinics. Right or wrong, this is the perception, so any de-funding of Planned Parenthood is sure to fire up the abortion debate.

So, how can we learn from this and apply it to our companies?

Anticipate Controversy and Plan to Deal With It: When your company is about to enter a war zone, there are two things you can do: 1) Change course; or 2) Prepare for battle. The Komen Foundation seemed to do neither, apparently because they did not anticipate the furor that would arise from their decision. As a result, their opponent in the battle controlled the news and opinion when it mattered most….at the commencement of the battle.

Get in the Social Media Arena: Where do people take their complaints nowadays? Straight to Twitter, Facebook, discussion boards, and anywhere else they have an audience. While their detractors were out in full force, Komen’s people were nearly invisible. Greater effort to explain their decision wouldn’t have saved them, but maybe they could have swayed a few opinions. Maybe they could have toned down the vitriol aimed at them

Listen and Respond: The one message Komen’s team kept repeating was not resonating. Public outcry was growing louder. At some point in the early going, they needed to grasp this and change their message. As communications professionals, we must always remember to listen, observe and understand how our message is being received. There’s nothing wrong with developing a new message if the one we’ve got is failing to persuade.

Stay True To Your Mission: At the end of the day, either Komen’s financial grants to Planned Parenthood aligned with their non-profit mission or they didn’t. It was the responsibility of Komen to spend their dollars according to their mission statement. If they had evidence to prove that these funds were not supporting their organization’s mission, come out with it. According to IRS code, donations to a non-profit must be spent to further their mission. Make that argument successfully and you just might win the day.

As communications practitioners, we often learn our greatest lessons from PR disasters. It is necessary, if we are not to repeat them.


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