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Susan G. Komen: What to Do When a Good Cause Goes Bad

Cause marketing seems so simple... until it's not. How Susan G. Komen could have avoided a public relations disaster.
In suddenly severing its ties with Planned Parenthood, has Susan G. Komen for the Cure just lost some of its biggest supporters?

Cause marketing seems so simple... until it's not, and then you're in crisis management mode. Susan G. Komen for the Cure, one of the country's leading breast cancer charities, is learning that lesson the hard way this week.

On Tuesday the organization went through a very public break-up with another well known nonprofit that supports women: Planned Parenthood. Komen decided suddenly to stop funding Planned Parenthood's breast cancer screenings, a cause that it has supported since 2005. 

That's when the uproar—and the tweets and the petitions—began. Critics claim Komen bowed to political pressure from anti-abortion groups. Komen has been tight-lipped in its response, citing a new internal rule that bars supporting another organization that's under investigation by anyone. (Planned Parenthood is under investigation by Congress.)

Let this be a warning to your company: Throwing your weight behind a cause your target market cares about can be a great way to boost the loyalty of existing customers and find new ones. But what happens when you need to break ties?

According to Robin Cohn, president of the crisis management firm Robin Cohn and Company, Komen has already made two key mistakes: Failing to respond to its critics, and, worse, blaming the other party. Komen comes off looking like it's sidestepping the issue and afraid to stand up for its principles.

I asked Cohn how companies might handle a similar public relations disaster more gracefully. Surprisingly, there are only two rules to follow:

1. Think it through: What values are you trying to project to your market? When a business supports a cause, it is saying this is who we are and what we stand for. Does the nonprofit represent those values? Does it work to support those values? Are you comfortable with all its programs? This is a partnership; take it very seriously.

When Komen partnered with Planned Parenthood, it had to know that Planned Parenthood provided services—namely, contraception and abortion—that are controversial and attract negative press. Did the Komen board consider those highly emotional issues? It should have. “Even if the mandate was strictly to provide funding for breast cancer screening, they had to realize that they were funding other things by perception,” Cohn says.

2. Have an exit strategy: Yup, right from the get-go, plan how you will extricate yourself should the relationship sour. Think through all the what-ifs and how you will deal with them—from it’s just not resonating with your customers to a major crime on the part of the nonprofit. And think through the ramifications of your response. If you partner with a major brand that has a great reputation, how will your customer and the media view it if you end the relationship?

Any organization can veer off-course, like Komen itself did when it partnered with KFC. Or screw up horribly, like the Penn State athletic department. Plan what will you do when that happens. You don’t want to be thinking up the press release when you are under pressure. Cohn suggests:

  • If you no longer agree with the nonprofit’s programs or tactics but the nonprofit is still reputable, compliment it on what it does right and the good it has done, but admit that your goals no longer align. Perhaps in the future you can work together again.
  • Announce a new partnership right away so attention shifts to what you are doing going forward. If you are ending your relationship with one AIDS-prevention organization, announce a partnership with another. Otherwise, your customers will feel betrayed. You entered the cause-marketing relationship to build trust. If you suddenly stop, Cohn says, people will see the partnership as a commercial ploy and get angry.
  • If something truly horrible happens, such as the sexual abuse scandal at Penn State, assess what your most important values were and create a new program that reinforces them. If you were a Penn State booster because your market is football fanatics, start a new after-school football program. If you supported Penn State because it’s part of your community, donate to a sexual-abuse-prevention program. No one answer fits all. The solution is whatever best reflects your company’s values.

Your success boils down to the five “P's”: Proper planning prevents poor performance.

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Last updated: Feb 1, 2012

GERI STENGEL | Founder, Ventureneer

Geri Stengel is the founder of Ventureneer.com, which pulls together in one place information that helps women entrepreneurs power up their business. An owner herself, she understands the challenges of growing beyond $1 million.




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