The democratization of publishing through the social web is probably the most significant political, economic, and sociological force of our generation. But we have only seen it begin to coalesce into a political force in the past 12 months. During Arab Spring, it was a unifying force to overthrow dictators.  Last month, the web’s united stand stopped proposed legislation in the U.S. that would have impinged Internet sharing and freedom. And a few days ago, it reversed a controversial policy at one of America’s best-known and most powerful non-profit organizations.

This latest example began when the Susan G. Komen for the Cure organization (famous for its “pink ribbon” campaigns) announced it would halt grants to Planned Parenthood that were used for breast cancer screening for low-income women. According to the reports, this decision was made in December and communicated to Planned Parenthood, which urged Komen to reconsider. Komen cited a new policy that prevented its grants going to organizations under investigation. Planned Parenthood is being investigated over whether government money was improperly spent on abortions. The Komen organization said the decision was final.

This policy would have resulted in cutting off a major source of health screening for the poorest American women and the web rose up once again in a mighty voice of protest, which resulted in a rapid reversal to restore funding to Planned Parenthood.

As this high-profile drama unfolded, it became obvious that this important charitable organization had stepped on a social media land mine without an appropriate communication plan in place, jeopardizing its hard-earned brand. Blogger Kivi Leroux Miller summarized the problem:

“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 organization and its brand. Watch and learn, so you don’t make the same mistake on whatever hot button issues your organization might be wading into.”

My friend Shonali Burke, truly an authority on non-profit PR and web strategy, analyzed this development carefully in a post called 7 PR Lessons Komen for the Cure Didn’t Know It Was Giving You. She has graciously agreed to share these seven lessons with the {grow} community:

1. Transparency is everything

As I explored this issue, I tried to give Komen the benefit of the doubt. I thought, “Let’s assume that all this is indeed the result of new granting rules.” So I went onto their website (couldn’t even load the blog, still can’t), to read what those policies were, and what they are. After all, surely they’d be on the site, right?

Nope. At least, I haven’t been able to find them, and I spent a lot of time looking.

Finally, I clicked through to some of their affiliate sites, and there they were. But why isn’t there at least an overview of their old and new grant policies on the main site?

Had Komen posted this when its board voted to do this, as the New York Times reported, at least they would have had their own point of view on record before they had to resort – late – to the video response from (Komen executive) Nancy Brinker.

2. Staying on message doesn’t help if you don’t address what people really want to know

In all their statements, Twitter responses (again, late), and so on, Komen has tried to reiterate that their decision is not about politics, and that they are staying true to their mission.

Komen on Twitter

That’s all well and good, but what people really want to know is why Planned Parenthood has been singled out. For example, Penn State University also appears to be in violation of Komen’s new grant policy.

If Komen had been upfront earlier – on its website – with exactly what this new policy is, then it might douse some of the flames. Note, I said “might.” But by digging their heels into the sand, all that’s happening is that we (at least, most of us) took their position with a huge sack of salt.

3. Walk the talk

The NYT article I referenced earlier quotes a Komen board member:

“The organization’s longtime support of Planned Parenthood had already cost it some support from anti-abortion forces, Mr. Raffaelli said. But the board feared that charges that Komen supported organizations under federal investigation for financial improprieties could take a further and unacceptable toll on donations, he said. ‘People don’t understand that a Congressional investigation doesn’t necessarily mean a problem of substance,’ Mr. Raffaelli said. ‘When people read about it in places like Texarkana, Tex., where I’m from, it sounds really bad.’ “

So what is this really about, then? Is it about staying true to its mission, as the Komen organization has repeatedly tried to say, or is it about assuaging those for whom it “sounds really bad”… and not losing significant donor dollars in the process?

And if, according to one of Komen’s own board members, “a Congressional investigation doesn’t necessarily mean a problem of substance,” why not try to educate those who might not understand this, instead of throwing a single – as seems to be the case – organization under the bus?

4. Public relations prediction is part of the job

The ability to anticipate how the public is going to react, and plans for that reaction, are part of a PR professional’s job.

I don’t know who runs Komen’s communications, but boy, have they been asleep on the job. Especially given how acrimonious conversations around Planned Parenthood can get, how could they not have anticipated what would happen… and prepared for it?

Perhaps they did, and were shot down by senior leadership… I don’t know. But whatever happened or, rather, didn’t happen, I’m left with the impression that Komen was so convinced of its own invincibility behind an ocean of pink ribbons that it simply never assumed people would take it to task.

I don’t know if the furor would have not have raged as high had there been some forethought put into how Komen would communicate the new policy. But at least they would have had a shot at shaping the public dialog. No matter what happens hereon out, this is one battle they’ve lost.

5. If your affiliates are distancing themselves from you, you need to worry

When I couldn’t find anything about the Komen grant policies on its main site, I clicked through to a couple of its affiliate sites, as I said.

And while I found the policies there, what really struck me was the lengths Komen Maryland went to to distance itself from the national organization’s policy:

“The new granting criteria announced by Susan G. Komen for the Cure® that now makes Planned Parenthood ineligible for funding was a decision made on the national level. Many of the Komen and Planned Parenthood partnerships that began in 2005 provide women in remote areas with access to breast health services. To date, Komen Maryland has not received a grant application from Planned Parenthood requesting financial assistance.”

Several of the other affiliate sites don’t have as current statements (or any), but if you look at their Facebook pages, you can see how they are trying very hard to reassure their fans that they weren’t part of this decision-making process while trying to toe the party line.

Komen Connecticut:

Komen CT on new national grant policy

Komen Charlotte:

Komen Charlotte on the new national grants policy

Komen Northern Nevada:

Komen Northern Nevada on new national grants policy

When your chapters are trying to convince their stakeholders that even though they’re you, they’re not really you, you have a problem.

6. Pull your head out of the sand and reply

Replying to your audiences, inquiries, and even attacks, is not an option. Today, conversation is the norm.

Komen was exceedingly late with its responses. It’s been roundly criticized for that, as it should be, and when I couldn’t find information on their grants on the main site, I wrote into the “media” email address, asking for a link. I still haven’t received it.

Perhaps as a tiny blogger I didn’t warrant attention from the media department. The problem is that no matter how tiny we are, we’re all connected in some way, shape or form, to people who might listen to us. And if enough of us make a noise, that can cause problems… and you might get “newsjacked.”

Planned Parenthood, on the other hand, gets that. It walked all over Komen with the way it went straight to the people, generating not just media and public attention, but more support and donations.

7. What goes online doesn’t stay in Vegas

One thread of the still-unfolding story is that Komen’s new policy has been driven in large part by its SVP for Public Policy Karen Handel, a former Georgia gubernatorial candidate who has been vocal that she doesn’t support Planned Parenthood.

The Komen organization says “it’s not about politics” but that is not what it looks like when Ms. Handel got a little too click-happy in retweeting this:

Karen Handel's retweet

Once you’ve seen this, does it really matter what anyone else at Komen says about the new policy not being politically motivated?

Even though Ms. Handel apparently deleted this tweet, the web has permanent evidence of it.  What goes online stays online, even if change your mind later.

What does this mean to these charities? 

There are many, many well-intentioned, sincere people working at the Komen organization, and they have brought huge awareness to the issue of breast cancer. It makes me sad that they are probably feeling really upset right now, and fighting their own internal battles because of the way this issue has been managed. Or, I should say, mismanaged.

Is Komen going anywhere? Probably not. Will Planned Parenthood find a way to cultivate the groundswell of supporters it has gained in the last couple of days?  I’m sure.

I hope that if you work for or with a non-profit organization, you’ll use this post as an inspiration to put together your own crisis communication plan … well before you need it.

Shonali Burke is one of the most trusted and inspired voices on the non-profit communications scene. In addition to running her own PR agency, she is the driving force behind the Waxing UnLyrical Blog.

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