The days-long roller coaster of statements and reactions from Susan G. Komen for the Cure about Planned Parenthood is a good lesson in bad crisis management, say consultants who have been watching the events unfold.
The situation has been a "total embarrassment" for Komen, said Tom Madden, chief executive of TransMedia Group, a Boca Raton, Fla.-based public relations ad crisis management company. "There should have been a lot of thought through that kind of decision, and it sounds to me like the ramifications and pressures they were under were not anticipated, which was a failure of planning. I can't believe an organization like Komen wasn't aware of what was going on."
Reversing themselves is a sign that Komen is not a "thoughtful, contemplative organization," Madden added. "This does not strike a chord that this is an organization that knows where it's going and what it's doing."
Komen may have alienated both supporters and detractors in switching its position, Madden said. "They should have anticipated that," he said. "Anticipation is a big part of crisis management. If you're going to avoid a crisis, you have to vividly plan for it."
Ultimately, reversing its decision so quickly after the backlash ensued was the right thing for Komen to do, said Michael Gordon, chief executive of Group Gordon, a New York-based corporate and crisis communication firm. "They were in the bull's eye, and it was clear that they were on the defensive and needed to make a change if they wanted to preserve all the goodwill they have built up over the years."
The longer the foundation would have taken to come to this decicion, Gordon added, "the longer it would have taken to recover."
With the first decision to halt grants to Planned Parenthood, Komen picked up antiabortion supporters it didn't have previously. Should Komen be concerned there will be a backlash from them?
"My sense is that the base of their support was not the pro-life activists," Gordon said. "But the larger point is that they need to take politics out of it. They are an organization that does tremendous work for the health of women, and that should remain their focus forevermore."
"The donors who jumped to Komen's side in the crisis are not their core supporters, so they probably would not have stayed with them for a long time," said Melissa Berman, president of of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors in New York, a consulting firm for nonprofit donors. If they bail out, she added, "I don't think they've lost anything."
As for Komen's previously loyal backers, they could be wooed back, Berman said. "This trial by fire proves that [Komen] is not taking their supporters for granted, and it makes it clear that they've begun to focus again on their mission and their core constituents, and they're not going to be bending at the will of whatever the hot political issue is."
If Komen is upfront and communicates well with supporters as well as detractors from now on, the consultants said, they could recover from this, and eventually the debacle would become a dim memory.
Still, they have some work cut out for them. The website GreatNonprofits.org, which allows the public to rate charities, said it's seen a 300% increase in negative reviews of Komen since the charity announced it would stop funding 19 Planned Parenthood affiliates. Its overall rating today is 1.5 out of five stars.
"I don't think there's been any permanent damage," Madden said. "I think there's going to be some anger on both sides, but that will dissipate eventually. The organization at its heart is very worthwhile. However, they must take aggressive action to really do a thorough and transparent analysis of what is best for women with breast cancer."
Added Gordon, "We live in a forgiving country. The CEO (of Komen) apologized, and I truly think they get it. This will always be a paragraph in the Komen story, but as time goes on, that paragraph will be further and further down."