How-to Health Communication: Crisis Public Relations and the Susan G. Komen For the Cure Foundation

Crisis communication has to be a part of any organization’s make-up.  Why? The same reason the words “I’m sorry” are part of human vocabulary:  humans make mistakes.  Being able to effectively deal with a blunder,  can tell a lot about an organization.

So, what can be learned about the Susan G. Komen For the Cure Foundation from its continuing difficulties since February 2012?  A lot.

Historically, Komen has had positive press: after all, its creation is based one woman’s promise to her dying sister.  So it isn’t surprising that in January 2010 the Harris Interactive Survey ranking of 79 non-profits brand along a number of criteria,  Komen ranked # 2 in Trust and #1 in Brand Equity (familiarity and quality).  It also ranked as the #1 non-profit to which people are most likely to donate.

Yet, in December, 2011 executives at Komen decided that the Foundation would not be funding cancer screening exams at Planned Parenthood.  In March, a month after the story broke, Harris International’s press release described a huge drop in Brand Equity for SGK: a fall from #1 to #56. 

Without a crisis management strategy, the Komen Foundation has stumbled  for months. Why?  Summing up, it is because the Foundation has not followed the five steps that are basic to public relations crisis communication.

STEP 1:  The first step is to be prompt and address the situation immediately.  Once the story broke, Komen should have addressed their reasoning for their decision.  Yet in this case, when the news broke via the Associated Press, Planned Parenthood used social media, Facebook, email and twitter to spread the news.   In contrast, Komen did nothing.  Planned Parenthood framed the story.

STEP 2:  Another step in crisis public relations is to be informative.  When the rationale for the decision was not fully explained, rumors proliferated. After letting Planned Parenthood frame the initial story, a public outcry occurred over the decision (with protests from its own affiliates) and the Foundation reversed its decision.  The explanation that Komen gave for their first decision was that they wanted to avoid funding organizations that are under investigation by authorities.  Yet Komen’s continued funding Penn State’s Milton S. Hershey Medical Center to the tune of $7.5 million despite also being under investigation by local, state and federal investigations.

STEP 3: This inconsistency calls attention to the third step in crisis management:  be honest with the public.  As the above illustrates there may be a history of problems with Komen’s communication strategy along these lines.

As Rachel Moro stated on her blog

On their website, Komen clearly states that is their mission “to end breast cancer forever”.  This mission ties in nicely with the organization’s recent name change to Susan G. Komen for the Cure®. Straight-forward. For. The. Cure.  What does this statement mean?  To anyone reading it or hearing it, the mission “to end breast cancer forever” and to be “for the cure” would mean there would be a significant amount of money going from the Komen Foundation to research to actually end it forever and find a cure.

Moro, an accountant, did an analysis on The Komen Foundation’s public records.  She states that “Komen’s total “Net Public Support and Revenue”for 1982-2010 would total somewhere in the order of $2.1 billion.  Only $491 million of that has been spent directly on research.  That means that $1.6 billion has been spent on other things.”  What has it been spent on?

Komen’s records state that between 2004 to 2009, Komen allocated a total of $1.54 Billion of “Net Public Support and Revenue” to the following categories: Education 36%; Research 25%, Administration and Fundraising Expenses 22%; Screening 11%, and Treatment 6%.  As can be clearly seen similar amounts of funding were spent on administration and fundraising as on research.

So there is an important message that anyone who donates to the Susan G. Komen Foundation For the Cure needs to know. As Andrea Rader from Komen stated, finding a cure doesn’t mean actually doing research,”Research is just one piece of delivering cures for cancer. Education is critical: even today, many women don’t know they’re at risk for breast cancer, or they continue to believe myths like underwire bras cause cancer (they don’t).”  Komen’s definition of “for the cure” does not mean doing research.

STEPS 4 and STEPS 5:  Steps four and five in public relations crisis management go hand-in-hand. Step four is showing the public you care.  Step five is maintaining two-way communication, that is, listening to the public.  There has been a vocal group of women with breast cancer who have been trying to get the Komen Foundation’s attention. One blogger and journalist, Brenda Coffee, was able to ask a spokesperson, Leslie Aun, the National Director of Marketing and Communication for Komen for the Cure,  to post on her blog.  The requirement of that posting opportunity was for Aun to respond to the many concerns of the breast cancer blogging community, for example, the partnerships Komen has made with brands like Mike’s Hard Lemonade (alcohol consumption associated with breast cancer) or the selling of “Promise Me” a perfume with carcinogenic ingredients. Aun was supposed to respond to comments to her post and thus provide a mechanism of communication.  Aun wrote her post.   According to Coffee, it was a defense of the Komen Foundation.  Aun did not respond to any of the comments that were made to her post.

So the Susan G. Komen Foundation For the Cure has been going through some significant personnel shifts over the past few months.  But is this enough?  Susan G. Komen was a young woman who had an extremely aggressive breast cancer that metastasized.   The Foundation that is named after her needs to remember that this terrible tragedy of her loss is being repeated.  Breast cancer is not being cured.

In those who have metastases, it is a life sentence to constant invasive, painful medical treatment and eventual death. Moro  poignantly wrote, “For me and the people I know who are in treatment for breast cancer, we understand a “cure” for our disease to mean that we will be completely healed and never have to worry about breast cancer invading our lives ever again. “  This is poignant since she died of breast cancer in February 2012, close to the time when all of the decisions about Planned Parenthood broke in the press.

The case of the Susan G. Komen Foundation For the Cure is not over.  There is time to work through this crisis with openness, honesty, information, and two-way communication with those who have breast cancer and their loved ones.  The officials leading Komen just need to take a few steps.