by Steve Adubato, PhD

Sometimes even the organizations with the strongest and most respectable brand can communicate in a sloppy and disorganized fashion. When this happens, that organization pays a heavy price.

Consider the case of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, one of the most respected non-profits raising money for breast cancer research and prevention. Komen’s “Race for the Cure” is known throughout the country and its ubiquitous pink ribbons communicate a powerful message without a word being spoken. However, recently, Susan G. Komen for the Cure demonstrated what happens when an organization doesn’t think through and execute a coordinated decision making and communications plan.

The media attention has been intense since the Komen folks put out “contradictory statements” regarding its decision to cut funding to Planned Parenthood. According to The Star-Ledger’s Friday, February 3 story, originally in The Washington Post, Komen had decided to no longer fund Planned Parenthood. Originally, it communicated that the decision was based on a new set of rules in which their organization would no longer provide grants to a non-profit that was under investigation. Planned Parenthood is being looked at because a member of Congress is questioning whether they are using federal funds to pay for abortions.

Reaction to the Komen decision was swift. Many Planned Parenthood and Komen supporters blasted Komen. Soon after, Komen President Elizabeth Thompson publicly stated that the decision to defund Planned Parenthood was in no way connected to the Congressional investigation. This public communication by the organization’s top executive directly contradicted Komen’s original official statement as to why it would no longer fund Planned Parenthood.

To further complicate things, according to The Star-Ledger February 3 story, “Komen founder Nancy Brinker said the organization wants to support groups that directly provide breast health services, such as mammograms.” She added that Planned Parenthood only provided mammogram referrals. Ultimately, Brinker would say that Komen’s public communication around the Planned Parenthood funding issue had been “mischaracterized” by others. There are so many communication and leadership lessons here. Following are a few:

--Any organization’s primary message must meet three criteria. It must be clear, credible and most important, in this case, consistent. The Komen message was unclear, ultimately lacked credibility because it kept changing and was obviously not consistent.

--You can only have one primary messenger communicating on behalf of an organization. In Komen’s case, they had several saying different things at different times and possibly for different reasons. There may have been multiple agendas including the fact that The Washington Post reported that a newly hired, top-level Komen executive was intent on stopping funding to Planned Parenthood and was possibly the driving force behind this effort. Only one person—the CEO or president—should be making those decisions and be the “communicator-in-chief”.

--Before making a critical decision that has the potential to directly impact key stakeholders, along with the reputation and brand of your organization, the implications of such a decision must be considered and those key stakeholders consulted. Given the swift and largely negative reaction of long-time Komen supporters, it is clear that this key element of the leadership and communication process never took place. I call this the “if we do this…” exercise.

--Finally, if an organization realizes that it has made an initial mistake in either a critical decision or the way that decision was communicated, own it. Never blame others for “mischaracterizing” your organization’s position. Acknowledge either that the decision was a mistake, or, that the way your organization communicated the decision was not clear and consistent from the beginning. (While never acknowledging that they made a mistake, on mid-day Friday, Susan G. Komen for the Cure put out a statement saying they were rescinding their initial decision to defund Planned Parenthood.) Blaming others only makes a difficult situation that much worse. If this can happen to Susan G. Komen for the Cure, a great organization involved in a great cause, it can happen to anyone.