What Komen Should Do Next to Rebuild Trust

The apology that Susan G. Komen for the Cure issued on Friday was the first step. The obligatory resignations are next. But if Komen is going to repair the damage done by its behavior last week, they have quite a few more steps in the process.

“What should Komen do next?” That’s the question many of you have asked me, and it was certainly the top question asked of me in my role as nonprofit marketing pundit last week.

Here’s what I think they need to do next:

Diversify the staff and board

The decision to defund Planned Parenthood ended up being extremely political — the topic itself is highly politically charged, not to mention the actual individuals involved. Even though Komen has apologized, supporters have little reason to trust that the current leadership team won’t make another political decision down the road, whether it involves Planned Parenthood or not (stem cell research, anyone?).

One way to help rebuild that trust, and to keep the promise about keeping politics out of it, is to openly and publicly diversify the board and senior staff so that politically progressive voices are represented, and supporters see those right-leaning and left-leaning people working together to find a cure. Except for a few leaks here and there, the Komen board has been conspicuously silent. Adding a well-known progressive (or two, or three) with some name recognition to the board (the real board, not all those advisory boards), would be a smart move.

Same goes for senior staff. This has largely been the Nancy Brinker Show, and I don’t think people are particularly fond of it right now. Might be time to switch up some of the voices, and maybe people will tune back in.

Listen to the substance of the backlash and “change your evil ways”

This isn’t Komen’s first brouhaha. If you look at all those social media comments (and Komen should be paying someone to read and categorize it all), you will see that was simply the last straw for a lot of people. They are tired of Komen bullying smaller charities and making every consumer product available pink (the pink handgun deal wasn’t sanctioned, apparently, but the fact that everyone believed it could be tells you all you need to know).

This ended up being about much more than just Planned Parenthood. And going back to the “old” Komen isn’t an option. So why not really learn from the substance of the backlash, and use it to create the “new” Komen — one that demonstrates that it can really listen to and learn from its supporters? That’s what good marketers do — they listen to supporters and critics alike, and bringing that knowledge back into the organization to make the services it provides even more valuable.

Learn how to use social media, especially Twitter

Whoever is managing the official @komenforthecure Twitter account doesn’t really get it. They keep doing these run-on tweets where they take a longer statement and break into a bunch of tweets that they send out all at once. If you read some of them independently, they don’t really make sense. Tweets need to stand on their own.

The majority of Komen’s tweets over the last week have been versions of the above, or @replies with corrections of what others are saying (No, we didn’t endorse the handgun. No, she doesn’t make that much.)  It’s a very old-school PR approach to Twitter, and it doesn’t really work. Get conversational, Komen! And make a clear point in 140 characters without requiring surrounding tweets to be read.

One of my biggest criticisms of Komen at the height of the controversy was their complete silence on social media for almost 24 hours (longer on Twitter), followed by official statements only. Even if they had simply posted something like, “We are listening. We hear you. We are talking internally about our next steps, and will get back to you soon” it would have been infinitely better than the nothing, followed by official-speak, that we got.

Twitter and Facebook aren’t just fun and games anymore. I think that should be pretty obvious given what happened the past week. We all need to know how to use social media in various situations, including a crisis.

What else should Komen do?

What else should Komen be doing now, especially on the marketing/communications side, to rebuild trust with supporters?

Would love to hear your comments!



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  • Komen would have to completely transform itself in order to get my support and that of my friends. They have to dump their corporatist orientation. They have to recognize that there are environmental causes for cancer, including breast cancer, and be prepared to stand up to the corporate bullies who try to hide or dismiss that fact. They have to stop their pink products campaign where only pennies (or even half pennies) on the dollar from sales actually go to breast cancer research. They have to break their ties to Big Pharm. They have to take a good hard look at their CEOs salaries and bring them more in line with other not-for-profits. 

    Komen in my mind will forever be linked with the GOP and the 1%. 

  • Valerie Lambert

    I can’t even imagine what Komen can do at this point to recover and bring back the supporters that they’ve alienated, but I’ll try.

    First, I’d have to say TIME.  Just as it would take with a person who’s betrayed you.  You’d want to see a demonstration of their REPEATED trustworthiness over time.  In addition, gestures of good faith would have to be above and beyond the call, to repair what they’ve done.

    One possibility might be to have a VERY TRUSTED spokesperson – or several, such as a really trusted celebrity spokeswoman (women) endorsing, followed by real women’s testimonials of how they’ve been helped.

    Komen definitely needs to shake their corporate image and get back to being about WOMEN and helping INDIVIDUALS.  Everything about them currently reeks of money, power, politics, secrecy and corporate double-talk – and how they don’t give a damn about poor women – or “the cure.”

    And I TOTALLY agree with you about the social media!  A class could be taught over how they handled last week, entitled, “Here’s what NOT to do with social media”!  Perhaps a week-long seminar!

  • Eduardomontez

    One big problem for Komen is that they never have publicly admitted that they made the Planned Parenthood decision because of abortion.  As long as they don’t, all the pro-choicers will continue to think that Komen is still planing to screw Planned Parenthood, just waiting and coming up with some other way of doing it. The most obvious way to win their trust would be for Brinker to admit that was the real reason, and say it was a mistake.  However, I would be surprised if Brinker would be that honest, and it would make the pro-lifers unhappy.

    Perhaps your idea of appointing some well-known progressives to the board would solve the problem of the pro-choisers trust.  But this too would make the pro-lifers unhappy. They hate PP, and it would look to them like PP is subverting Komen.

  • Gayle

    Glorrie, I’m with you! (First I want to say to you, Kivi, that you did a tremendous service to all of us by dissecting in real-time the Komen melt-down and aftermath. Thank you!)

    But Komen, and other breast cancer prevention orgs, need to start reframing this issue nationally. Right now, the issue frame for breast cancer is that it’s a PERSONAL responsibility–women have to get mammograms and do self-exams or else suffer the consequences. The focus is on individual detection, not on societal prevention.

    Because prevention would mean banning synthetic chemicals in drugs, cosmetics, and meat; pesticides in foods; solvents in household cleaning products, BPA in food containers; flame retardants in furniture; among other things. It’s not like we don’t understand environmental causes of breast cancer and what public policies would help prevent it. Nor it is just a matter of more and more research. It’s a matter of the huge undue influence of corporations (big Pharma and big Ag) and the lack of governmental regulation of food and drug production.

    It’s worth noting that, starting in 1985, Zeneca Pharmaceuticals was the sole supporter of National Breast Cancer Prevention Month–the very folks who both manufacture vinyl chloride and the pesticide Acetochlor (both directly linked to breast cancer) as well as Tamoxifen, a top-selling drug used to treat breast cancer. What’s behind the pink ribbon brand…PROFIT.  

    The new issue frame has to be that this is a PUBLIC issue–we all have the responsibility and POWER to create public policies that promise women better breast health and fewer deaths. If you have to walk this year, walk in a picket line! (Thus endeth the rant…and my apologies to all those wonderful, big-hearted women who have contributed time and money to try to end breast cancer.)

  • Tactics are easy to fix. Deep seated arrogance and contempt for your supporters? Not so easy.  

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