Lee Davies, a Group Vice President in Makovsky’s Health Practice, is the guest author of this blog on the recent controversy between Susan G. Komen for the Cure and Planned Parenthood.
What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object?
According to the laws of physics, that’s when energy is created. And there certainly was a lot of energy generated when Susan G. Komen for the Cure notified Planned Parenthood Federation of America that it was withholding $750,000 in planned grant funding for breast cancer screening.
The move apparently stemmed from a change in its grant guidance last October, restricting grants to organizations under federal or state investigation – including Planned Parenthood, which, lightening rod that it is, is perpetually under federal or state investigation.
But politically motivated or not, one thing is for sure: media attention was loud and strong! Rarely do patient advocacy associations take each other on head-to-head – usually these groups take the high road and “play nicely.” So, from a communications perspective, who did what – and how well did they do it?
Planned Parenthood appeared to own this story. They turned a “victim” role into a powerful, proactive advocate voice. Within hours of official notification, they issued a call-to-action to constituents and mobilized a broad and deep communications effort, including an e-mail communiqué from president Cecile Richards; outreach to influential public officials sympathetic to the Planned Parenthood mission (including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who offered to make up part of the funding shortfall); media engagement, especially with high-profile professional women reporters (Barbara Walters, Andrea Mitchell); as well as leveraging the blogosphere and commandeering the social media space. Their multi-pronged campaign achieved critical mass and created an eventual tipping point resulting in Susan G. Komen withdrawing its grant denial.
Susan G. Komen, on the other hand, appeared to let the story spin out of control. They knew they were taking a highly controversial position. Given their potentially inflammatory stance, they could have done more to prepare the market environment to receive potentially difficult news. Moreover, did they have a “crisis” plan in place to address the media storm that immediately swirled? The impact on reputation or “brand equity” cannot be easily determined. According to news reports, daily individual contributions may have actually risen in the days following their announcement – a reflection of the fact that controversy always has two sides. In the long-term, though, Susan G. Komen’s credibility may have been damaged by muddled communications and contradictory actions. Time and a raft of positive communications – especially with Planned Parenthood – will be necessary to counter this.
So what are the key learnings for us, as communicators, when it comes to delivering controversial news?
• Create a receptive environment in advance by engaging with key audiences and explaining your planned actions.
• If possible, deliver messages in a face-to-face environment, and answer questions forthrightly.
• Enlist the support and aid of outside experts who can help deliver the message.
• Develop a strategic plan anticipating media and audience response, and be ready to either pre-empt or react quickly.
• Engage early and often in the social media space. Monitor discussions and anticipate the tipping point.
• If you are the recipient of negative news, assess your position and its impact, and be prepared to mobilize your stakeholders to take a desired action.
Now that the dust may be settling, one thing seems certain: this communications controversy is likely to become a case study in the power of social media, grassroots constituency relations, advocacy relations and public policy development. It is our job to learn from it.
Labels: Andrea Mitchell, Barbara Walters, communications, Karen Handel, Makovsky, Michael Bloomberg, Planned Parenthood, Public Relations, Susan G. Komen