The Komen backlash—why you need an emergency communications plan

By Katy Snyder, JVA Consulting

There are many lessons to be learned from the Komen fiasco that unfolded last week and continues to dominate nonprofit and mainstream media this week. In addition to lessons we mentioned in our blog last week, another lesson that has made itself abundantly clear this week is the importance of marketing, particularly crisis marketing and communications.

I don’t think I fully grasped the scope of Komen’s marketing crisis until this weekend when I realized that I couldn’t get away from the Komen brand—even when I was away from my computer. First, I heard a local radio station air an ad offering $25 off the entrance fee for an upcoming Komen Race for the Cure. Later, while baking some bread, I noticed the package of yeast I was using had the trademark pink Susan G. Komen logo on it. This got me thinking about how ubiquitous Komen is, which in turn brings to mind the fact that Komen has put an extensive amount of time and energy into its marketing. Komen partners with a variety of corporate sponsors, such as Yoplait, Energizer, Ford, New Balance and countless others. While Komen has obviously put a lot of effort into cultivating hundreds of these types of partnerships, their slow, and often conflicting, response to last week’s crisis seems to suggest that they have put very little time into planning what to do in case their brand was tarnished. In turn, it seems that few of these brands understood the possible negative repercussions of partnering with Komen.

A quick look at a few of Komen’s corporate sponsors’ Facebook pages shows that the overwhelming majority of those leaving comments are not happy about the Komen situation. While Energizer quickly added a post that said it was committed to women’s health and would be donating $50,000 directly to an organization that provides mammograms, many of its customers expressed displeasure with its decision not to cut ties with Komen. Said one Facebook post in response to Energizer’s donation: “That’s a nice start, but until you cut ties with such a corrupt organization, there won’t be any Energizer batteries in our home.” Many respondents have also suggested that buying competitors’ products will help get their message across: “Duracell for me and my family also. I’m boycotting all products that support the politicization of women’s health and freedom to choose.”

Yoplait, which has partnered with Komen to produce lids for its yogurts that customers can save and mail to raise money for Komen, has also been hit by the scandal. On Yoplait’s website, there is a joint message from Yoplait and Komen saying that they are “very proud of the work we’ve done together…to fight breast cancer. But we know that there is still a long fight and lots of work ahead.” The statement garnered many responses, including: “You are responding to the issue too slowly and damaging your brand beyond repair. Either support SGK or pull your support—the longer you waffle on making a decision, the more customers you are going to lose permanently. Make a decision!” Or, more to the point: “Drop Komen or I’m dropping you.” And these were just a few of some 700+ posts, primarily from angry Yoplait customers.

While it is unlikely that your nonprofit will suffer from a blunder of the same scale as Komen, it is likely that at some point, you will have a PR crisis to deal with.

Says Renee Beauregard of CommUlinks of Colorado, “… nonprofits need to have a plan ready for PR emergencies. They need to make sure they have media training, and it helps if they have a PR firm on-call. Nonprofits should act—not react.” Not only do nonprofits need to act, but they need to respond quickly. Many felt that Komen was absent in the first hours of the crisis, while Planned Parenthood responded quickly, and with a unified voice. Apparently, Komen finally went into crisis mode placing calls to affiliates and key donors over the weekend. But it seems like this effort was too little, too late.

So what do you need to have in your emergency communications plan?

1.     What is your message? Komen ultimately offered at least two different reasons for defunding Planned Parenthood, including the fact that it was under congressional investigation, and the fact that Planned Parenthood does not provide mammograms itself. Public reaction seems to suggest (and today’s resignation of Karen Handel, SGK vice president, who has openly opposed abortion and Planned Parenthood) that most people think the decision was actually politically motivated. The only statement this makes is that all of these reasons couldn’t possibly be true. At a time when trust is paramount, conflicting messages are the wrong message. Determine your response (if it is based in truth, it shouldn’t be hard to stick to), and state it clearly.

2.     Who will determine your response to a crisis? Your marketing director? Your board? Your ED? Affiliates? And who can communicate this message? There should be no question about who can talk to the media. In the Komen situation, board members, affiliates and the CEO have all weighed in. While only the CEO Nancy G. Brinker has given official interviews, others, including board members, have spoken out, and have given conflicting messages. While Komen has repeatedly said its decision was not political, the Komen Denver affiliate posted the following on its Facebook page: “Komen Denver is PRIORITIZING women’s health over politics,” sending the message that others (namely Komen) were prioritizing politics. While it is hard to get everyone on board with your message when you are as large as Komen, if affiliates had been consulted before such a big decision was made, it is likely that they would have been more willing and able to convey a unified message with SGK. While you cannot sensor what board members and others say, you can provide official talking points and spokespersons, so a unified message is communicated.

3.     What channels will you disseminate your message through? Website, Facebook, Twitter, interviews, press releases, etc., and how quickly should responses be posted?

4.     How will you respond to negative comments? Will you respond to them directly? Ignore them? Delete them? Some have accused Komen of deleting negative posts on its Facebook page, while Komen says it only deletes those with profanity. A better alternative? Do what Komen Denver did: leave the negative posts, but direct those who criticize to a prepared statement that corrects any inaccuracies and clearly states the facts.

5.     Will you have separate messages for your donors, affiliates and corporate sponsors? While your organization is likely not as large as SGK, you probably have multiple groups of stakeholders. If you have corporate sponsors, as SGK does, you need to determine how you will handle any public relations fallout. Corporate sponsors want to know that their name and brand are not going to be damaged by being associated with your brand. Having appropriate messages in place to communicate in case of a crisis provides you both with a way to communicate with your sponsors, but also ensures that your brand will not be damaged in the first place.

Check back for more on the Komen situation in the days to follow—we don’t think this story is over yet!


This entry was posted in Accountability/transparency, Commentary, Foundation news, Health, Issues, Social media, Women and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Komen backlash—why you need an emergency communications plan

  1. Pingback: Hot Topic from the Principles and Practices Guide: Crisis Communication Plans |

  2. Pingback: The view from Nonprofit Street in 2011—our top-rated posts | JVA's Nonprofit Street

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