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Why Komen Was Destined to Clash with Social Media

This is a guest post by Kami Watson Huyse, CEO of Zoetica Media and editor of the Communications Overtones blog.  Kami and I and a few other friends had some deep discussions about the recent Komen/Planned Parenthood PR crisis, and how it all related to Humanize, and we thought it would be amazing if Kami would write up an analysis for us by taking the lessons from the book and applying them to this unfolding situation.  Lucky for us, she agreed.  Enjoy.

There are politics and then there are politics. And the worst politics are usually the internal ones. Anyone who has ever worked for a large organization knows the tangle of bureaucratic tape that it usually takes to get anything done.

You could hardly have missed the blow up in early February when the Susan G Komen Foundation made its announcement to defund Planned Parenthood and its fantastic reversal of its decision within a few days. Then at the end of February, the organization, in an effort to assess the level of the damage to its reputation, sent out a survey that tested messages rather than looking at a more organic approach to restore trust.

But even more interesting than the overall outcry was what happening inside the organization. Of course, as outsiders we can’t know what exactly took place, but we did see some glimpses to some of the inside politics, and we can apply some organizational knowledge to analyze the situation.

What makes an organization like this so tone deaf?

Is Susan G Komen Out of Touch?


Photo by WeNews

To be sure, the blowup sparked a passionate constituency to act. The considerable political and media prowess of Planned Parenthood, and some past concerns with Komen sealed the deal. If you look at the way that Komen and Planned Parenthood approached the communication around the decision there are stark differences.

Just read these three quotes to get a feel for the overall sentiment that Komen has lost touch with their base. If you want more examples, just check this search for “Komen is out of touch.” One of the best quotes is below:

Komen has lost touch over the years and just become increasingly insulated and out of touch from the people on the front lines, the people who donate and walk and participate in their fundraisers,” said breast cancer survivor Jody Schoger, 57, who writes a blog called Women with Cancer, and leads weekly breast cancer chats on Twitter. -USA Today Your Life by LIz Sabo and Gary Strauss

When Culture Betrays You

Susan B Komen Board of Directors

The concepts in Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant’s book Humanize hold some insights into what might have gone wrong at Komen. There are other ways you can look at the organizational issues that may have occurred. One is the concept of Founder’s Syndrome, which was outlined elegantly in this post by Nell Edgington on Social Velocity. And I particularly like this reflection exercise by Beth Kanter that any organization or movement can apply after the crisis.

Certainly, Susan G. Komen For the Cure was formed from a passion to make a difference in the outcomes of breast cancer. When Nancy Brinker lost her sister to cancer in 1980 she started the organization in her sister’s memory, and to “end breast cancer forever.” The organization relies on a vast grassroots army of volunteers and 124 affiliates.

Since 2002, the Komen has grown from $92.6 million to a more than $400 million fundraising machine, with about $98 million in community grants given last year. Clearly the organization is making an impact for these organizations that provide direct service.

All the while, Nancy Brinker has continued as the CEO, along with a very small nine-person board of directors made up of mostly friends and family of Brinker.

Starting in 2007, the organization introduced its pink ribbon logo and changes the name to include “for the Cure.” It was most likely at this time that the organization started to move toward a more machine-like organization as they moved to create and defend a definitive brand.

In many ways they are a victim of their own success.

By many accounts, the culture has become more insular as the organization became more committed to raising money and less connected to their original and personal passion. The leadership has been increasingly entrenched and cut off from the base, leaving them open to a strong backlash.

Four Komen Failures and their Antidotes

Scrabble White Letter on Red F Rubber Stamp Letter a Pushfit cube i letter L

Humanize lays out four areas in which an organization should excel in order to be successful in today’s environment. They include being Open, or more flat and distributed decision making; Trustworthy, which includes being authentic to your mission; Generative, or collaborative in solving problems; and Courageous, which includes being less risk averse.

The problem is that corporate cultures tend to be hierarchal, suspicious, bureaucratic and risk averse. The opposite of a “humanized” culture. As a multimillion dollar organization, Komen was no different than so many of its contemporaries in this regard. However, it led them to make some bad decisions that could haunt them for years to come.

From the lens of the Humanize thesis, here are four behaviors (and their antidotes) that contributed to putting Komen on a crash course with public opinion.

1. Avoid risk at any cost (Antidote: Be Courageous)

Komen had become risk averse and protective and were operating from a place of fear and protectionism. In 2010, there were reports that Komen went after over 100 smaller nonprofits with the “Cure” in their name. A sure sign that a litigious and protective culture was forming as they struggled to control the use of their “mark” extended beyond the mere misuse of the brand to a more stringent viewpoint.

At the same time, pressure on Komen was building from many supporters to defund Planned Parenthood. Additionally, the arrival of Karen Handel as Komen’s senior vice president of public policy, who is a vocal opponent of Planned Parenthood, led to increased attention by internal leadership on what is perceived as a persistent thorn in the side of the organization. With new investigations of Planned Parenthood on the rise, the Komen leadership saw a sensible way to exit the controversial relationship and be seen as the non-partisan organization it felt it was.

The idea was to avoid controversy rather than create it, but paradoxically the risk averse culture led to a giant blind spot in actual risk. Consider what one of Komen’s board members said about the decision:

John D. Raffaelli, a Komen board member (Democrat) and Washington lobbyist, said Wednesday that  to the decision to cut off money 17 of the 19 Planned Parenthood affiliates it had supported was made because of the fear that an investigation of Planned Parenthood by Representative Cliff Stearns, Republican of Florida, would damage Komen’s credibility with donors. (via the New York Times)

2. Mistrust the advice of your staff (Antidote: Be Generative)

Last April, at least two members of the staff warned the organization of what the fallout could be. They warned that there would be fallout with donors and affiliates, and they warned about a potential negative public reaction.

From the Washington Post:

The board subcommittee held a conference call that included three Komen staff members. [Karen] Handel argued for defunding Planned Parenthood. Staff member Mollie Williams, who oversaw Komen’s community grants, argued to maintain funding. Leslie Aun, a communications official, warned of negative publicity if funding were cut off, according to a former Komen employee.

When the board voted to go forward with the new grant funding rules in November, Mollie Williams quit the foundation the day after the board meeting.

However, the argument that controversial organizations like Planned Parenthood hurt their reputation and detracted from their mission won the day. The board and the staff were not in synch, as a result, important concerns were overlooked.

3. Keep decisions at the top (Antidote: Be Open)

The advice of competent staff advice was overlooked. Even more important, affiliates are not consulted about major changes. In its official statement and apology, Komen said it would be reaching out to its “network” to make decisions about how to proceed. A few weeks later it issued its controversial survey, which is another example of the top down vs. collaborative way of operating.

The problem with relying on just a few people to make decisions is that what sounds reasonable in a boardroom might seem so in the light of day. Consider this interview in the Huffington Post:

Board member John D. Rafaelli, a Democratic lobbyist and a supporter of Planned Parenthood’s mission, took responsibility for the changes. As the only lobbyist on the board, he said, he should have anticipated the political fallout.

“Honestly, I didn’t think it through well enough,” Rafaelli said. “We don’t want to be pro-choice or pro-life; we want to be pro-cure. We screwed up, I’m saying it. We failed to keep abortion out of this, and we owe the people in the middle who only care about breast cancer and who have raised money for us an apology.

Of course, in the media and online, Karen Handel was getting much of the blame, and she took the fall for it after the controversy by leaving the organization. As a known politician that had panned Planned Parenthood, we might assume Handel was clearly the instigator, right?

Certainly she probably had an influence, but the truth is that the board was responsible to see the whole picture, not just take a recommendation from one staff member. It is also clear that the board made the decision in a very insular fashion.

4. Control the flow of information (Antidote: Be Trustworthy)

Komen, like so many organizations, used social media as a channel to deliver messages. They didn’t use them to build relationships or talk with their community and motivate them to act. As a result, when their decision to change community granting guidelines came out on January 31, Komen didn’t even put out its own version its own traditional and social media communication channels. Instead, Planned Parenthood, whom the decision primarily would impact and who HAS used their social media channels in a conversational manner, swung into action immediately and defined the debate. In social media a 24 hour advantage can never be compensated.

Komen did inform its hundreds of local affiliates in December about the changes to its funding model after the fact in a memo with talking points. The memo also urged affiliates to refer questions back to the national level. Many affiliates balked when the bashing of Komen began, and one Komen Board member of the New York affiliate quit in protest, asking for the resignation of Brinker and the Board.

Another local affiliate felt blindsided and expressed her frustration in this report:

Even some associated with Komen said they were frustrated by the decision. Ann Hogan, president of the board of directors for Susan G. Komen for the Cure Connecticut, an affiliate based in Farmington, said she learned of it earlier this winter and had been “very surprised.”
“We didn’t have input,” she said.

Komen isn’t evil, but this decision wasn’t its first bad one. You can read about its partnership with Kentucky Fried Chicken to see another recent decision that marred the organizations reputation and we talked earlier about its aggressive brand strategy that penalized hundreds of small nonprofits. All of this together has led to an environment that is unforgiving for Komen.

Let’s be clear. Komen has the right to change its funding guidelines and to cut off any organization it feels endangers their mission. However, the board clearly did not consider exactly how this might go down in the public arena because it was tone deaf and isolated.

It is a place that any organization could find itself. Be sure to start the conversations now, about how to become a more open and collaborative culture. It might pay off in dividends later.


Kami Watson Huyse is the CEO of Zoetica. She writes about communication, community and social media at Communication Overtones. She specializes in social strategy, crisis communication and measurement. You can follow her @kamichat on Twitter.


Photo by _lmc


JVConcep March 5, 2012 at 2:46 pm

@kamichat Good post on Komen, but something tells me you held back… ;)

jennyfriend March 6, 2012 at 10:16 am

@maddiegrant ok, I’m ordering my copy of Humanize now!! @worldfundlatam this is a great book for y’all

maddiegrant March 6, 2012 at 10:37 am

@jennyfriend Yay!! Let us know what you think later on!

WorldfundLatAm March 7, 2012 at 1:45 pm

@jennyfriend Thank you we will check it out!

kamichat March 6, 2012 at 10:52 am

@PamelaGrow Thanks lady, glad you liked it

kamichat March 7, 2012 at 10:36 am

@johnhaydon Thanks, John

dfriez March 7, 2012 at 10:59 am

Great post! I especially like this sentance - ” In social media a 24 hour advantage can never be compensated.”

mcahalane March 7, 2012 at 12:09 pm

Excellent piece! RT @johnhaydon RT (must read) Why Komen Was Destined to Clash with Social Media by @kamichat ->

kamichat March 8, 2012 at 3:34 pm

@mdbarber @deirdrereid @danperezfilms Thanks for your RTs!

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