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3 Lessons From the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Disaster

The foundation's recent public relations mess offers valuable takeaways for small businesses.
Komen’s CEO Nancy G. Brinker

Last week, we saw one of the country’s most well-known cancer research advocacy organizations, the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation, go from being revered to reviled. It’s pretty wild to see how quickly the reputation of a group that has invested more than $1.9 billion in the breast cancer movement can be somewhat permanently tarnished. But there are some things that businesses can learn from this PR crisis.

News broke last week that Komen had cut funding for Planned Parenthood, which provides health services to 5 million Americans who can’t afford insurance, to provide breast cancer screenings. They said it was because of new internal rules that bar it from giving money to organizations that are under government investigation. (A Republican politician had launched a congressional inquiry about Planned Parenthood's use of public funding.)

Immediate public backlash spread like wildfire. I, like many others, started getting tons of posts on my social media networks denouncing Komen and vowing never to wear pink again. Media stories about how Komen’s decision was politically motivated were widespread. Petitions circulated. People started to donate directly to Planned Parenthood reportedly in the amount of more than $650,000. Even New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a former Republican now independent, jumped on the bandwagon and said he’d match dollar for dollar up to $250,000.

So, what does this PR catastrophe have to do with running your own business? Here are three things that the folks at Komen failed to do:

1. Think about every possible scenario before making a decision.

We make choices about our business every day, and I know it’s hard to give every decision a thorough “vetting out.” But you should do it anyway, especially if there’s any potential for controversy or negativity. Ask for input from others beforehand and get them to play devil’s advocate; they might know, see or find something that you weren’t aware of.

2. Know customers inside and out (especially what makes them tick).

You know your customers in the context of what they buy from you and how they engage with you. But you should also know what they’re likely to be interested in outside their interactions with your business. For Komen, their “customers” are people who not only are passionate about finding a cure for breast cancer, but also are probably interested in anything related to women’s health, public health and health care equality. (Breast cancer doesn’t discriminate, after all.) It’s not a surprise these customers flipped when the foundation decided to eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood.

3. Understand the power of social media.

With social media, everyone’s a broadcaster and the snowball is on steroids. Literally within 12 hours, my Facebook wall was plastered with Komen posts, rants and links to articles. The foundation tried to manage things by sending canned talking points to its members, issuing statements filled with “corporatese” and even creating a video of CEO Nancy Brinker looking like, as one website called it, "a rich lady caricature surrounded by expensive books." (Ouch.) In today’s social media-networked world, no one listens to or believes in these “official sources” anymore–it’s all about the communication that happens with those they trust, one-on-one.

The outcry was so intense that on Friday, Komen reversed its decision. While that’s great news, Komen has a long, long way to go before it can–if it ever will–get back the public’s support.

What business lessons have you learned from this?

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Last updated: Feb 6, 2012

JANINE POPICK

Janine Popick is the CEO and founder of VerticalResponse (a Deluxe company), a leading provider of self-service email and social media marketing tools for small businesses. The company was ranked No. 4,882 on the 2013 Inc. 5000. @janinepopick




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