Lessons from the Susan G Komen Foundation/Planned Parenthood firestorm: What other non-profits can– and can’t– take away

Lessons from the Susan G Komen Foundation/Planned Parenthood firestorm: What other non-profits can– and can’t– take away


There are a lot of ways to cover the Komen/PP firestorm–too many, in fact. For the purposes of my work here, I’m going to focus on what made this brouhaha different than any other concerning Planned Parenthood, the lessons learned if you’re on the defensive, and the lessons learned if you’re on the offensive.

The culture of this particular moment

I’m going to first spend some time investigating why it was that this particular attack on reproductive health and Planned Parenthood was so explosive. Planned Parenthood has been under attack for quite a while, and especially in the last few years– those working on reproductive freedom issues won’t likely soon forget the US House trying to defund Planned Parenthood altogether in 2011, for example. (And we won’t forget Stephen Colbert’s completely amazing takedown, either.) So why was Komen’s move so incendiary? And what can we learn from it?

Invariably, I know people working with social media strategy are eventually going to be asked to reproduce situations like Komen/PP. They’re going to be asked to make this new campaign GO VIRAL. Let’s get this part out of the way: Nothing can ever be made “viral” on purpose, period. Anyone who says differently is selling something.*

Here are the salient points about This Moment for future campaign work:

1. Komen mistook the community of breast cancer survivors and cause supporters as their own community and supporters. People who are involved in working towards a cure for breast cancer are coming to this work often for very emotional reasons: because they have survived, or they know someone who has– or hasn’t. They appreciate that Komen is leading the charge, but their passion ultimately centers itself on breast cancer.

Katha Pollitt points out in her Nation piece, by the way, that Komen’s origins are activist and feminist in nature:

Breast cancer activism began as a feminist cause, after all: the initial impetus, back when Komen was founded in 1982, was the silence and shame surrounding the disease, the lack of research funding and the general sexism pervading treatment. Those are all feminist issues, and were structured as such in public discourse at the time.

This has been mainstreamed in many ways, and particularly the pinkwashing campaigns have normalized breast cancer as part of our everyday conversations about women’s health and cancer in general. (Pinkwashing is problematic for a number of reasons; I’m not going down that road here, but read the piece at the link above if you want to know more.)  In any case, Komen’s championing of breast cancer support on multiple fronts gave the organization the impression that people cared about Komen. They don’t. They clearly care about Komen’s money and that it always goes towards supporting breast cancer initiatives, though.

Will Komen be able to fix this? I don’t know. As a colleague pointed out to me in an email:

I doubt that Komen can regain the trust and support of the millions of disappointed women. Komen’s former meme was “We fight breast cancer for you and the people you love.” A new meme has been created: “We are part of the nasty culture wars that have hurt so many, and we care more about that than about whether you die from breast cancer.”

2. Furthermore, emotional connections in general matter. Planned Parenthood has an incredibly emotional relationship to their constituencies: the women for whom they provide services, and of course, the advocates for reproductive rights and justice. Look at any of the stories posted on the Tumblr that I created, Planned Parenthood Saved Me, and you’ll find people not referring just to the services that they received, but more so, the care, understanding and non-judgmental support. More on the Tumblr later, but the bottom line here is that Planned Parenthood has carefully cultivated that emotional connection into a relationship. When the crap comes down in a relationship, friends are there for each other. PP’s constituencies felt personally attacked by Komen, and responded as such.

How was that different than the legislative attacks of last year? Mostly because so many more women outside of PP’s traditional constituencies were involved, but I’d also say that this felt particularly jarring to core activists and supporters. This wasn’t the usual social conservative attack: A non-partisan organization (albeit one with a dubious history, about more of which we’re learning every day) caved to anti-choice pressure. That hurt.

While an organization can’t create this kind of attack for themselves, what they can do is this: Create your community before you need them. Leverage emotional connections to your work into real relationships.

3. A reconnection of reproductive healthcare as real healthcare was made in the wider mainstream community. This one is harder to quantify– or at least, I’ve been having trouble quantifying it. There are two parts of this: that women have assumed for the last couple decades that care of their ladyparts is automatically going to be covered under other healthcare provisions; two, that Planned Parenthood has morphed in the public consciousness as a healthcare provider to an abortionplex (as depicted by The Onion, a satirical newspaper. Also, see the Yelp reviews.). Rebecca Traister and Joan Walsh talk about this in their excellent Salon piece:

For the first time in what feels like forever, passion and fury were being loudly, proudly given in a full-throated voice, on behalf of women – women as moral actors; women as citizens with rights, health, bodies, freedoms; women as people with families and economic concerns. […] The demonization of Planned Parenthood should have awakened the country to the radicalism of the right, and how far it has pushed the political conversation. It’s been hard to measure the degree of the radicalism, so slowly and unceasingly has it crept across our consciousness and the political discourse. But it’s important to remember how mainstream Planned Parenthood used to be. It was the respectable, even Republican, advocate for women’s health, including reproductive services.

Both of these common-culture frames/memes — assuming care and demonizing Planned Parenthood– have contributed to the chipping away at reproductive health and freedom. The emotional pain of the moment combined with the chipping away led many women outside of traditional activism spheres to their a-ha moment last week.

Lessons learned: if you’re under attack

So, the mob has lit their torches and gotten out their pitchforks. What do you do? Assuming you’ve already built your community before you need it, there are a few other things to keep in mind.

1. Say something. Komen chose to remain silent, and as pointed out by Raven Brooks over at the Netroots Foundation, they allowed the conversation to get away from them. What could they have said? “We’re listening. We hear you. We know you’re upset, we’re here for you.”

I was reminded in this situation of a problem that my dear friend Jaclyn Friedman faced a few weeks ago. She wrote a column about Blue Ivy, and in it, didn’t use a racial justice lens on Black women’s sexuality. This upset a lot of people, understandably, and Jaclyn was faced with a lot of angry tweets. So, she tweeted that she was about to get in a car and drive to an event for a few hours, but didn’t want people to think she was being silent. She also tweeted that she was genuinely listening to concerns and wanted to take time to process and respond properly. When she did respond, she posted an apology that has since been held up as a shining example of how to handle this kind of situation. While not everyone was satisfied, many people who previously were angry with her took the time to support and thank her.

2. When you do finally say something, don’t do it in plastic. Komen posted a video that was widely criticized as flat and inauthentic. It reminded me of watching people who dance who’ve recently been taught how to dance. They’ve got all the moves down, but it’s awkward–they’ve got no flow. People at this point don’t want to hear about numbers. They don’t care, frankly, about understanding you at this point. They want you to understand them.

Also weird: they never mentioned Planned Parenthood in this video, as if mentioning PP would make the entire Komen organization evaporate instantly. This is clearly straight out of an old-school PR book: don’t mention the enemy! Time to get that memo out again: old-school PR tactics don’t work in social media. You’re in a conversation.

More tips can be found at my post on #AmazonFAIL from 3 years ago (these rules haven’t changed!), over at Allyson Kapin’s post on Frogloop, and Raven’s post at Netroots Foundation.

Lessons learned: if you’re on the attack

Again, we’re assuming here that you’ve already built your community before you need it. I can’t stress enough how important this is. You might also want to look at Beth Kanter’s Ladder of Engagement to understand more how people become involved with your organization through digital channels.

1. While you can’t create these kind of opportunities on the fly, you can be ready for them when they happen. Removing barriers to effective, nimble organizational response is key. Planned Parenthood had an email out almost immediately, and their social media followed suit.

2. Don’t forget targeted, multi-pronged approaches to digital activism.  While a lot of yelling and screaming on social media may make you feel better as an individual, you have to ask yourself: Does an organization like Komen really care about loose cannon spray? I don’t think that they do. In that vein, a lot of people with whom I work started talking right away about how to hurt Komen financially, using a targeted set of strategies to shame current donors into withdrawing support, and to raise money for Planned Parenthood.

I also started wondering what kind of activism could be done with women who don’t have any money to withdraw or re-donate–those who would be most affected by a lack of services at Planned Parenthood. It was with that impetus that I created the Tumblr blog, Planned Parenthood Saved Me, as a storytelling vehicle. Numbers and statistics don’t tell stories; people do. That’s how we relate to one another. Collecting these stories in one place became a powerful messaging tool: for Planned Parenthood itself, if they wanted to use it; for journalists looking for the human side of this story; and, of course, for the women who have lived through horrific healthcare experiences, who were saved by PP, as a tool of catharsis and support.

What else can we examine here? Leave your thoughts, ideas and lessons in the comments, or ping me with them on Twitter.