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Cancer, money and branding

If you work for the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s marketing team, I would love to buy you a coffee and hear the real story of what went on there last week.

To an outsider, it was a sorry sight. It looked as if a $439 million organization devoted to saving lives had suddenly decided to play student government. It looked so bad, it made me wonder if I was seeing the issue from only one perspective, as a result of my personal social media diet. More on that in a minute.

* * * *

If we put aside the important matter of fighting breast cancer, the story of Komen pulling its support for Planned Parenthood played out like a bungled brand repositioning. Komen decided they are no longer a brand for all women. They are now a brand for socially conservative women.

There’s wisdom in such a position. Lucrative names like Fox News, Toby Keith, Sarah Palin and NASCAR all intentionally target socially conservative Americans. Social conservatives are a loyal bunch. They have networks, they trust each other, and they spend money.

I doubt Komen did any research to figure this out. More likely, they heard from a few influential donors who said they would help more if Komen distanced itself from groups that are involved with abortions.

And so, with informal advice from Bush press secretary Ari Fleicher, someone at the top of Komen drew a line in the sand and picked a fight with Planned Parenthood.

* * * *

When the story broke January 31 and the fury of a million Facebook postings began to rain down, Komen seemed off-balance. The national organization released a series of positive but vague statements, the latest of which sums up their position as follows:

“We have been distressed at the presumption that the changes made to our funding criteria were done for political reasons or to specifically penalize Planned Parenthood. They were not. Our original desire was to fulfill our fiduciary duty to our donors by not funding grant applications made by organizations under investigation. We will amend the criteria to make clear that disqualifying investigations must be criminal and conclusive in nature and not political. That is what is right and fair.”

That’s a non-answer. (Will Planned Parenthood get funding from Komen or not? We still don’t know.) It also defies common sense, since other programs under federal criminal investigation, such as the Penn State Hershey Medical Center, seem to be in no danger of being de-funded.

An Associated Press report also casts doubt on the official story:

“A source with direct knowledge of decision-making at Komen’s headquarters in Dallas gave a different account, saying the grant-making criteria were adopted with the deliberate intention of targeting Planned Parenthood. … According to the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions, a driving force behind the move was Karen Handel, who was hired by Komen last year as vice president for public policy after losing a campaign for governor in Georgia in which she stressed her anti-abortion views and frequently denounced Planned Parenthood.”

Meanwhile, many Komen affiliates immediately veered off-message, hoping to preserve their own local bases of support. This quote from a Washington Post story seemed especially insightful:

“Honestly, we have been turned into a political association without any political skills,” said Laura Farmer Sherman, executive director of the San Diego Komen affiliate. “There was not a crisis-management plan. I think they were completely caught off guard.”

* * * *

Now, about social media, and whether we can trust it as a way to gauge public sentiment. After the announcement about Planned Parenthood, my Facebook and Twitter feeds lit up with electric vitriol directed at Komen. This could be because everyone in the world right now hates Komen. Or it could be because I’m friends with a lot of liberal people. It also could be because people with social media expertise, for a variety of cultural reasons, are inclined to support Planned Parenthood.

I suspect many Facebook- and Twitter-happy journalists saw the same kinds of messages I did, and that bombardment of social messaging helped create the widely accepted storyline that Komen’s decision was a big mistake. After all, from that social media point of view, Komen’s clumsy moves harmed the organization, costing it money and goodwill.

* * * *

But is that accurate? Consider:

  • If most of my social connections were with socially conservative people (or if I were party to the barrage of conservative email forwards that get passed along), would I have had the opposite experience? With a different social media diet, would I have seen an outpouring of support for the Komen foundation?
  • A few weeks from now, when the flames of online fury have drifted to some other cause, will socially conservative donors still remember that Komen is One Of Them?

I suspect the answer to both questions is yes.

It’s true that Planned Parenthood seized the moment to raise a lot of money, including a $250,000 matching donation from my mayor, Mike Bloomberg.

But so did Komen. Without giving specifics, Komen CEO Nancy Brinker told reporters donations went up 100% last week. Tune your dial to the right-wing media and you’ll see reports declaring victory for Komen, claiming (and I cannot verify this!) that Komen raised $1 million, compared to Planned Parenthood’s $500,000, last week.

* * * *

Personally, I think Komen made a choice to move politically right in the interest of money, and despite a near-catastrophic public relations effort, it worked. They’ll come out of this fine. I also think it sends a terrible message about their priorities, and I’d encourage people to support other cancer organizations instead, such as the American Cancer Society and Livestrong.

You might see it differently. It depends on whom you follow.

— By Daryl Lang. Filed under News & Journalism, Politics, Social Media

One comment

  1. Jrogier says:

    Kudos to you! This is one of the most informed pieces I have read on this most recent political theater. Am glad to have recently discovered your blog! twitter.com/jrogier

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