Boy, did Susan G. Komen blow it last week. When news spread of its decision to pull funding from Planned Parenthood, support for this decision and positive feelings about Komen dropped like a stone. Every female friend of mine and many male friends lambasted them on Facebook and Twitter. ABC’s The View had a raucous debate with only Elizabeth Hasselbeck showing any support for Komen. Donations for Planned Parenthood went way up and Komen board members threatened to quit if they don’t reverse the decision. Apparently, they did reverse the decision, or so it seems. They are letting Planned Parenthood apply to funding, but that doesn’t mean they are going to give it to them. Even more telling was that the person behind the decision and the new policy that resulted in the decision resigned due to considerable pressure from inside and outside of Komen.
Why, you wonder, other than personal feelings about the decision, is driving my writing a blog on this? My reasons are simple. If you are a sponsor of Komen, how do you react and what impact on your sponsorship decisions does this huge news story have? Furthermore, from a crisis management standpoint, what would I have done if I was Komen?
Let’s look at the sponsors first. My first reaction is that I am sure that most sponsors are not looking at all of the recipients of the Komen grants. They are looking at the overall reputation of Komen and how the sponsorship can further their relationships with the consumer and the retailer. They want to be a part of breast cancer awareness month because their target audience is women, 35-54. They want to sponsor an organization that has strong relationships with retailers. If they did pay attention to who the grants went to they would focus on the largest ones and apparently Planned Parenthood is not one of the largest. Breast cancer awareness and breast cancer screening is not seen as a politically charged issue so it wouldn’t draw general concern from a corporate group. Moreover, even if a company knew that Planned Parenthood was a recipient, they would most likely not see this as an issue as the funds are going to cancer screening, not politically charged issues such as abortion.
Now that the cat is out of the bag, how do these sponsors respond? The answer is that it all depends on how conservative the company is and how they feel overall about the Komen sponsorship. It comes down to two basic elements – how successful is the Komen sponsorship for the company and does the company feel that being a part of Komen will damage them with consumers in support of Planned Parenthood. Most companies will stay away from the political mess. They have multi-year deals with Komen and programs already planned for next year during breast cancer awareness month. They can’t cancel the deals because of Komen’s decision. So, not surprisingly most big sponsors have come out in support of Komen specifically, but avoiding any comments about Komen’s decision about Planned Parenthood. They have made veiled comments about supporting all efforts regarding cancer screening that will not anger the supporters of Planned Parenthood. Bottom line, the sponsors are going to sit tight as the negative publicity isn’t impacting them directly and continue on with their marketing plans. Furthermore, I would guess that most consumers can’t name the key Komen sponsors as it isn’t apparent unless they are at a race or paying attention in store during Breast Cancer awareness month. Since Komen has seemingly reversed their decision the sponsors have little to worry in the short term. However, when it comes time for them to renew their sponsorship, they will have to assess if the Komen organization still gives them what they need.
In terms of Komen and how they managed the crisis. I would say their response was a mixed bag. On a positive note, they did respond quickly and decisively. However, their initial response did nothing to assuage the critics of the decision since it still appeared that it was politically motivated, at least as far as the media was concerned. The resignation of the Vice President in charge of the decision spoke volumes on the political aspects of the decision. Since the country is so polarized with anything to do with Planned Parenthood, they had to know they were playing with a political hot button. Critics kept saying that something as basic as breast cancer screening shouldn’t be politicized regardless of what organization is doing the screening. Komen was caught between a rock and a hard place. To continue to hold ground would continue to greatly damage their reputation and standing and they were in danger of losing a number of key members of their board. A reversal of the decision would also give them a black eye, but at least they would be perceived as listening to the critics. The overall foundation of the Komen organization is to promote breast cancer awareness and screening and in the end they found a way to get back to those tenets. Hopefully, most supporters of the organization will forget about this black eye and focus on the good things Komen does.
What is most interesting about this is the overall impact that social media had on the whole issue. I highly doubt that Komen would have changed their minds if the social media blogosphere, Facebook and Twitter weren’t so virulent against them and the decision. Social opinion changed their minds and they did it quickly. Before the advent of social media I highly doubt this would have happened or happened so quickly. It will be interesting to see how social media and public opinion changes other decisions organizations make in the future.