Susan G. Komen’s race to cure the organization’s battered public image is on.  For a little over a week, the organization has been losing a public battle in the court of public opinion regarding their initial decision barring Planned Parenthood from applying for future grants due to an ongoing investigation and then their swift reversal.

The timeline of events follows:

April 2011– Karen Handel, who recently lost the Georgia governor race, was hired by Susan G. Komen as senior vice president for public policy.  Handel describes herself on her Twitter headline as a “Lifelong Conservative Republican formerly Georgia’s first Republican Secretary of State.”  During her campaign, she mentioned in interviews her being pro-choice and not supporting Planned Parenthood.

September 29, 2011– Republican Rep. Cliff Stearns notifies Planned Parenthood of a Congressional investigation into whether the group has illegally funded abortions with federal money

January 31, 2012– News breaks that Komen’s new grant policies bar the organization from funding groups under investigation.  They announce that they will defund Planned Parenthood.  A pro-life vs. pro-choice debate immediately begins on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and the blogsphere as well as sentiment that SGK’s decision would negatively impact low-income and minority women. Critics point to the organizations continued funding of Penn State, currently under investigation, as proof of SGK playing politics. Thousands of Facebook users communicate their outrage or support on SGK’s Facebook page.   Many long-time supporters of SGK state that they will no longer give to the charity or will opt to give to Planned Parenthood funds normally given to SGK.

February 1, 2012– Planned Parenthood announced that they rose over $650,000 in 24 hours from more than 6000 donors.  The organization normally received 100-200 donations per day.

February 2, 2012– The SGK website was hacked at 12:30 AM EST to read “Help us run over poor women on our way to the bank”.  Later that day, circulates an image, supposedly a screen shot of Karen Handel’s Twitter profile, in which she retweets the following message from user @JadeMorey “Just like a pro-abortion group to turn a cancer orgs decision into a political bomb to throw.  Cry me a freaking river.”

February 3, 2012– The Komen Foundation reverses their decision and states that only those under “criminal investigation” will be barred.  Planned Parenthood can now apply for grants again.  Pro-life supporters of the original decision take to Facebook and Twitter to express their anger at the decision.

February  7, 2012Karen Handel resigns.

So… what do we learn from this?

  1. Appearance Matters. The addition of Karen Handel to SGK months before the decision to defund Planned Parenthood caused many to view it as a political decision, whether it was or not.  With the invention of social media, where every person has a voice (and the ability to start a mini revolution), organizations have to predict possible misunderstandings, before they happen, and prepare for them.  In all honesty, the SGK debacle could have easily been avoided with the right strategy.
  2. Never talk about “policy”. I learned this lesson as a hospitality manager.  No one wants to hear about your policy.  Policies are things that are written and can be easily rewritten.  The fastest way to make a customer mad is to tell them that you cannot do something due to company policy.  Talk benefits.  Had SGK came out and said that they were on a mission to stretch their dollars and had a plan for taking the money they had been giving to Planned Parenthood and giving it to another organization, that would serve more minority women with the same amount of money, I doubt seriously there would have been much backlash.  Who could argue with a breast cancer organization finding more efficient ways to serve more women?
  3. Steer the conversation. As I read comments on Twitter and comments on SGK’s Facebook page, I could feel SGK’s horror through their silence.  They did not react as though they were using social media, a real-time information environment.  They reacted as one might with traditional media; releasing updates and statements every few days.  As a result, the conversations almost entirely became pro-life vs. pro-choice.  Most of those supporting SGK’s initial decision cited their pro-life beliefs and congratulated the organization for making a moral decision.  In truth, this is the LAST THING Susan G. Komen likely wanted because it furthered the belief by their more liberal and moderate supporters that their decision was a political one.  Out of the hundreds of comments that I read on Facebook and Twitter, I did not find a single one that stated their support on the grounds of it being a solid policy decision.  As soon as the conversations began to take this tone, SGK should have intervened to bring it back to the real issue at hand.

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