Crisis Management 101: Assess the Reaction to What You Do

We saw just how well quickly implemented changes work with Bank of America’s recent debit card fee debacle, but obviously leadership at the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation didn’t catch the memo before sparking its own crisis management situation.

The people have spoken, though, and following a massive outcry, both online and off, the company backpedaled. Check out this guest piece, from Rick Kelley, director of Triad Strategies, LLC.

Crisis Management 101: Assess the Reaction to What You Do

The Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation, often described as one of the most successful disease advocacy organizations in the world, on Friday reversed its decision to terminate its relationship with Planned Parenthood after three days of Internet-fueled furor.

Although Komen’s sudden reversal may muffle the maelstrom, we suspect it could become a textbook study on the damage that an organization can bring to its own reputation when it fails to accurately assess the reaction to decisions it makes.

While “PR fallout” should not drive strategic decision-making, here was a case where the potential backlash should have been obvious. Equally obvious should have been that the reasoning behind the decision to terminate grants to Planned Parenthood would be viewed as weak, at best.

Three days earlier, Komen appeared to be caving to its more conservative donors and grant-makers by concocting a policy that would disqualify Planned Parenthood from receiving grants. The reason Komen cited for terminating the Planned Parenthood relationship was its new policy of excluding organizations that are under any type of investigation.

The “investigation” in this case was launched by a conservative Florida congressman at the behest of anti-abortion advocates to determine whether Planned Parenthood uses federal money to fund abortions. Planned Parenthood says it does not, and that only 3 percent of its health services involve abortion in any case.

Nancy Brinker, Komen’s founder and CEO, said the policy had nothing to do with Planned Parenthood specifically. John Raffaelli, a Komen board member, contradicted her, telling the New York Times that Komen made the changes to its grant-making process specifically to end its relationship with Planned Parenthood after becoming increasingly worried about the congressional investigation and the impact it could have on donors.

Regardless of the thinking behind the policy change, Komen’s biggest mistake was taking an action that politicized women’s health. Until now, it had owned the higher ground on the issue of abortion and the politics that swirl around it. Until now, Komen had been able to say, “We exist to support women’s health, and Planned Parenthood’s programs regarding breast health are in line with our mission. Our grants to Planned Parenthood are strictly for that, and are not used for any other purpose.”

The reaction appeared to be touched off in social media channels but spread quickly to the mainstream media. All seven of California’s Komen affiliates released a statement opposing the action, and several other Komen officials resigned or threatened to. Twenty-six U.S. senators urged the foundation to reconsider, and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg immediately pledged $250,000 to Planned Parenthood.

Even after Komen issued what appeared to be an earnest apology for its initial decision, it will be hard to coax the genie back into the bottle. By reversing its decision, Komen has likely alienated its conservative constituency, as well as its liberal or more tolerant ones.

It could have been avoided by thinking ahead, and engaging in a bit of worst-case scenario planning. Instead, the foundation has a considerable challenge ahead in restoring the brand and reputation that, for 30 years, it worked industriously and carefully to build.

Rick Kelly directs the crisis communications practice at Triad Strategies LLC, Harrisburg, PA.

Leave a Reply