3 nonprofit PR lessons from the Susan G. Komen debacle

The breast cancer foundation’s decision to stop funding Planned Parenthood—and its subsequent reversal—offers important advice for those in the nonprofit world.


Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the nation’s largest breast cancer charity, faced a PR onslaught last week when it said it would stop giving money to Planned Parenthood for breast exams and related services, a decision it later reversed.

The move sparked a social media backlash, political posturing, and hundreds of thousands in donations to Planned Parenthood.

Putting the politics of this story aside, every nonprofit will, at some point, have to make unpopular decisions and, as a likely consequence, face a PR crisis or a communications debacle.

Here are lessons from the Komen incident:

1. Establish a crisis communications plan that includes social media

It took Komen two days to respond to negative feedback on Facebook and Twitter. On the Internet, that’s a lifetime.

What makes it worse is that Komen wasn’t taken by surprise. It wasn’t hit with a crisis that required response. It created the crisis, which means the organization could have prepared well in advance.

Komen could have easily responded to mounting criticism online, possibly stopping the story from blowing up as much as it has. At the very least, Komen could have retained brand integrity by joining the conversation early to show donors their voice matters.

Its slow response time, coupled with the foundation’s inadequate response, suggests Komen had no strategy in place, much less a social media strategy.

2. Your brand is in the hands of your donors

It always was. Long before social media, people were talking about your organization over coffee and at the family dinner table.

And they still are.

The only difference with social media is that it magnifies what your nonprofit is already doing in real time and across the world. It also gives you the opportunity to monitor and listen to what your supporters are saying.

Your donors don’t care about you. They care about what they can do through you. As a result, your donors are the ones who drive your brand. They are your story. You owe it to them to listen to what they have to say, especially when you have the (free) tools to do so.

What exactly has happened to Komen in the last several days? They have been rebranded, whether they like it or not.

3. Talk to the media

And do so as quickly as possible. Because if you don’t, somebody else will.

While Komen fell silent and started allegedly deleting negative Facebook posts, Planned Parenthood used the situation to launch a fundraising campaign, promoting it on major news channels.

That means media reported only one side of the story. For two days. Watch:

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

The result? Planned Parenthood raised more than $400,000 in 24 hours, and raised its profile without paying a dime.

Mike Duerksen is a communicator and copywriter. He also blogs at NonprofitPR, where a version of this story first appeared.

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Topics: PR

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