Saturday, February 4, 2012

Public Relations: SGK, Ur Doin It Wrong

A great deal has been said about the Susan G. Komen Foundation's massive PR debacle in de-funding and then nominally re-funding their support of breast exams performed through Planned Parenthood outlets. I won't try to replace a good Google search for the latest developments, but I'll say a few things from the perspective of someone who has worked in marketing her whole adult life, including intersections of various sorts, paid and not, with several non-profit organizations.

Observation #1: Whether you are a commercial or a non-profit concern, the moment you conclude as management thereof that you and/or your board of directors are involved with the organization for the same reasons that your customers or donors support you, you are deeply in denial and on the road to disaster.

If you're a nonprofit, your management probably has a certain level of passion for the mission, whatever it is, but also wants to make a living and perpetuate some personal job security. Your board - more often than not - wants something spiffy to add to their resumes while doing as little tangible work as possible. With the rarest of exceptions, non-profit boards are there to see-and-be-seen.

That's not why your members and supporters donate their money or time or involvement. They do it because it makes them feel good about themselves.

Same thing for commercial companies. If you successfully sell a widget or a windmill, that sale will have happened because the customer feels better about buying from you than buying from someone else. They won't have a passionate conviction that your product and yours alone fulfills their needs because of your fabulous technology, legendary customer support or attention to detail. They just somehow like you better.

That's the core mistake the Komen Foundation made to begin with: they assumed that just because the makeup of their board and management structure had changed to include a different political attitude, those changes could be successfully reflected in their external mission, without any fallout. They failed utterly to understand their audience/support base or to take that base's concerns into account.

Observation #2: Don't just make shit up in a vain attempt to have your cake and also eat it when you change - or change again - a policy or a product or the story you're trying to convey about either. It never, ever works. You have to be straightforward and provide factual information and a plausible reason, not smoke and mirrors. No, we're not supporting this position any more because x-y-z. Yes, we're phasing out this product's support for format a-b-c because we believe j-k-l is the path of the future. Will you lose friends, supporters, customers? Undoubtedly. That's why you need to understand your base (Item #1) and choose carefully which segments of it are most important to your success.

Komen blew it here because they wanted both to hang onto the broad, bipartisan, largely apolitical base they had cultivated for a decade, and at the same time to appease the anti-choice fringe crowd whose whispers seem to be having an impact on the organization's current CEO and new Senior VP. As a result of their waffling walk-back of the PP de-funding decision (with, as others have ably noted, completely toothless language that does nothing to confirm that any actual funds will be forthcoming), Komen has now lost substantial chunks of both groups. A double blunder from which I see no way back that doesn't involve executive-level resignations, a massive restructuring effort, and, above all, time.

Observation #3: It's a brave new world out there. You'd better understand the Internet sandbox well before you go there to play with your pail and shovel.

Not that there isn't still a place for traditional media. It's nice to be able to send the CEO a clip file of warm, fuzzy ads; cover stories; glossy feature article reprints. But, let's admit it - most of the real work of forging public opinion, especially for an organization as prominent as Komen (or, for that matter, Planned Parenthood), is going to happen online. That's not a place where you can bury a story on Page 12 of Section C and have it reliably fade out with the weekly recycling. Just the reverse: it's a place where your offhand comment or major misstep can be in front of hundreds of thousands of people within a matter of seconds. Very often, in places where you can do nothing to mitigate it. Scrub your Tweet or a blog post? Doesn't matter. Astute netizens will have already grabbed, archived and shared copies. Huge, amorphous networks of connection spread the word and translate into action very, very quickly. Just ask Planned Parenthood, who received roughly 1 million dollars in donations within the first 24 hours of this circus act. Ask anyone who has ever gleefully joined in one of Stephen Colbert's pranks.

You need to be regularly present, you need to be engaged, and you need to draw a sharp, clear distinction between an individual's private expression and one made on behalf of the organization. Komen did the first two, but in the same kind of unconvincing, inauthentic language I mentioned above. Their online voice doesn't read as genuine, and it must. And, clearly, the third thing did not happen.

What I would have done, had I been the marketer presented with the task of conveying something like this to the public? (Well, had I not resigned in disgust. Always a possibility - it wouldn't be the first time...) I would have moved heaven and earth to persuade the brass that more research was needed, both of our affiliate organizations and our supporters. What did they see as being most effective? Where did they feel our most important support was being delivered? In this case, the results of that kind of investigation might well have turned up data so persuasive as to trump ideology and avoid the whole debacle.

Yes, that's a long shot. But at the bare minimum, much more should have been done to anticipate the likely fallout. Newbie-level mistakes were made here.

Observation #4: When apologies are called for, they need to be real ones. Hardly any company ever gets this one right. Just say you're sorry. Not sorry if, not sorry that, not sorry for any (your epithet of condolence here). Just sorry.

This, again, is part of the genuine voice remarked on in Item #3. Just as you can always tell when somebody is issuing an insincere, non-apology apology, so can your base. That's true whether or not you're apologizing directly to them or to a third party. Words matter. Use few, choose them judiciously, and be factually and emotionally honest. If you don't, and the insincerity bleeds through - as it is doing, with Komen's reversal - whatever goodwill you hoped to regain will just become more elusive.

So, there you have them: my four basic rules. Know your audience, tell the truth, understand/respect the power of the Net, and be sincere. Doesn't sound that hard, does it?

I have absolutely no idea whether Komen will survive this PR fiasco they built for themselves...or, indeed, whether or not the organization should. But I do know one thing for sure. If they're hoping that Super Bowl hoopla will bury the story, they're really fooling themselves. The Count noted that the group has some male supporters on Facebook. They'll likely be watching the big game on Sunday. But the millions of women who have invested donations, volunteer time and their own personal stories/lives, and those of their friends or families, in what Komen has historically been about? Not too many of them will be gathering with the guys for beer and buffalo wings. They're the core constituency Komen needs to be concerned about here. And, come Monday, they'll remember.


Anonymous said...

I still don't understand how SGK could make such a blunder and alienate so many of the very people that they are in business to help. If you breath you court controversy. You have to ask yourself are we strong enough to withstand the scorn of a few to tend to the needs of the many? I guess SGK Did and the answer was no. To me an incredible laps in logic on their part. But what do I know?

Anonymous said...

The point you make about waffling on both sides of an issue leaving you friendless is also very astute IMHO. It's what I have always said about a Democratic senator from my home state whom is retiring. What did his attempts to curry favor from the Republican party win for him in the end? Other than the scorn of nearly everyone and a promise from many loyal Democrats like myself that we would write in the names of our pets before we voted for him again. And do you think those Republicans he bowed down for would have voted for him? Yeah right!

et said...

Playing both sides leaves you only with a point of view watered down beyond all recognition, it seems to me. At least have something to say that doesn't resemble incoherent mumbling more than anything else.

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