The firestorm that erupted over Susan G. Komen’s break with Planned Parenthood raises serious questions about how well prepared the organization was for the repercussions of their decision to discontinue funding of Planned Parenthood’s breast cancer programs. Whether you believe their action to be right or wrong, there are plenty of public relation lessons to be learned from Komen’s handling of their decision to split with this long-time partner.
A fundamental principle of public relations, as in medicine, is “First, do no harm.” For doctors it applies to physical damage, in PR it’s reputational damage. In Komen’s case, they made several major blunders that have severely tarnished their reputation among many.
Both the reason they gave for their decision and how they went about cutting off ties with Planned Parenthood left the organization open to harsh criticism for a process that did not appear fair, thorough or transparent. Their refusal to meet with Planned Parenthood after years of working together does not seem in character with the organization’s personality, nor does their new policy to not fund programs that are under “investigation,” rather than assuming innocence until guilt is proven.
Outrage over Komen’s seemingly insensitive approach in both their actions and messaging has been particularly fierce because it seems out of line with the organization’s core values and public persona.
Additionally, their response in the face of the backlash has been extremely lacking. Given, the inflammatory political issues involved, they should have been better prepared with a more adequate defense of their decision. Their current refusal to speak with the press makes matters worse.
Komen’s decision also demonstrates the difficulties that organizations face when they make a 180 degree turn away from risks that they believed acceptable when they formed and supported the partnership. Risks are an inherent part of any partnership which is why those risks should be carefully weighed when determining the value of the relationship. The organization’s core principles are what should guide them when evaluating the risks and benefits of a partnership, not the individual beliefs of those running the organizations. Turning away abruptly from a long standing partnership formed on the basis of the organization’s mission and its acceptance of risk will likely lead to an outcry and damage to the organization’s reputation that may be difficult to repair. Komen’s current situation is a case in point.