The Komen Fiasco: 5 Lessons Your Board Can Learn

I’m sure you’re familiar with the Susan B. Komen fiasco. Unfortunately, Komen fell into a public relations minefield, and hasn’t recovered yet.

"Pinkgate" from Beth Kanter's Pinterest images

What can your board learn from this debacle?

Your board needs to discuss – right now – what they would do in a crisis situation.

  • Who would speak?
  • What would be their plan?
  • How would they manage social media?

Let’s take a look at the Komen controversy and pull some important lessons from it so your board can be prepared.

What happened:

As you probably know, Komen decided to pull their funding from Planned Parenthood that paid for breast cancer screenings of low-income women.

They made the decision because of a new policy that prevented grants to organizations that were under investigation by a government body.

Komen leaders declared that the decision was absolutely not political.

When the story broke, social media networks went wild.

Many Komen supporters were incensed by the decision. (What would happen if  – or when – you make a controversial decision that enraged many of your supporters?)

via via Beth on Pinterest

A firestorm rose in the media.

Facebook and twitter went crazy with negative comments.

And Komen was silent for 24 hours. (huge mistake)

No response at all while their facebook page was going wild.

(What would your organization do if you were being eaten alive by your supporters on social media?)

Nancy Brinker, Komen’s CEO, tried to brush it off. She said “we think this is the right thing to do from a stewardship standpoint.”

(Can’t you just hear your own board chair saying this in the same circumstance? The head-in-sand approach.)

Then the media started digging.

Internal sources revealed that the decision WAS in fact politically motivated. Leaders had planned the entire process in order to target Planned Parenthood.

The head-in-sand approach never works for crisis communications.

Insiders at Komen spoke privately to the press. (What would your staffers say in response to a controversy?)

The firestorm grew.

The media started raising questions about other issues that Komen would just have soon kept quiet:

  • How about those cozy relationships with corporate supporters?
  • Where does all that money go?
  • How much is their CEO paid?
  • What are their ties to the conservative right?

Komen representatives then reversed their decision and reinstated Planned Parenthood. The Vice President who more or less led the effort resigned.

But the Komen supporters are still simmering with anger. I have friends who say they will never participate in a pink ribbon march again.

Komen will be associated – for a long time coming – with a divisive political issue that is only going to detract from its core mission.

What can your board learn from this debacle?

1.  Plan now for controversial decisions or surprise situations.

Every nonprofit has to face this kind of situation – sooner or later.

It may be embezzlement, a scandal.

Don't let a cast of characters speak for you in a PR crisis!

Or, what if the worst happened? What if someone died or had a terrible accident on your watch?

You will inevitably tick off your supporters, make a media gaff.

Or stumble into major controversy without intending to.

2. Pull in a crisis PR expert.

You need an experience expert to guide you.

They will designate one person to be the media spokesperson.

And they’ll want strict silence from everyone else involved.

A hallmark of crisis PR is that only one person speaks for you.

No one else muddies the message.

3. Tell the whole truth, quickly.

My friend Joyce Fitzpatrick, who specializes in major crisis PR situations shared her advice.

Don't try to cover up the truth - it will come out whether you want it to or not.

“Fall Forward, Fast.”

Joyce says to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth as quickly as you possibly can.

If you fess up, clear the decks, admit defeat or wrongdoing or poor judgment – if you do it quickly – you can calm down the story and dampen interest.

You’re dead if you try to cover it up, or conceal part of the truth, or tell only half the story.

This happens ALL THE TIME – usually to protect people and/or for political reasons.

Don’t let the media can feast on juicy tidbits that leak out in a steady, damning stream.

That keeps your organization in the headlines for days, weeks, even months, as the story unfolds. And watch your fundraising plummet.

4. Decide on discipline now.

The twitter conversation 1/31-2/5 about Komen via

Revealing your entire situation completely right off the bat, is really hard.

People inside your organization will do everything possible to protect themselves.

The powers that be will stonewall.

And disgruntled staffers may work just as hard on the other side to leak information.

5. Be ready to react to social media.

For the first time ever, social media played a major, driving force in galvanizing public opinion.

And it happened at lightening speed.

No one can control social media!

People are gonna talk and they are going to say what they want to say.

And they have public channels to use that you can monitor but can’t stop.

Kivi Leroux Miller nailed the lessons learned from the Komen fiasco.

Here’s the problem with remaining silent, as so aptly pointed out by Kivi Leroux Miller, in her blog.

“This is what happens when a leading nonprofit jumps into a highly controversial area of public debate without a communications strategy, stays silent, and therefore lets others take over the public dialogue, perhaps permanently redefining the origination and its brand.

Here’s what you should say on social media: “we are listening.”

As Kivi explained this week in her blog:

“We are listening. We hear you. We are talking internally about our next steps, and will get back to you soon.”

Bottom Line:

Then Kivi nails the real lesson to learn:

Twitter and Facebook aren’t just fun and games anymore. I think that should be pretty obvious given what happened the past week. We all need to know how to use social media in various situations, including a crisis.”

What can your board learn from this controversy?

Don’t let the discussion become political or religious – instead focus on what you should do in a PR mess – and what you should not do!