It’s been a bit over a month since the Komen Foundation for the Cure went head-to-head with Planned Parenthood. Now social media analysts and pundits are busy trying to sort out what was learned during that hard semester and whether the massive breast cancer charity has a chance to move on or is destined to flunk out.
School is not yet over, that seems certain. Boycott sites on Facebook and the wider internet remain active. Calls continue for the resignation of tone-deaf officers besides Karen Handel, the vice president of Public Affairs and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate who is the acknowledged architect of the de-funding strategy. And stories regarding every move by Komen or local affiliates quickly fill with negative comments from former supporters — many claiming they are irrevocably offended by a perception that the organization put politics ahead of women’s health. Conversely, others shout that Komen folded too quickly in the face of a media backlash.
What social media lessons can be gleaned from this affair?
1. Social media provides an unprecedented megaphone for public opinion.
2. Once past a tipping point, negative social media perception is almost impossible to arrest.
3. Inattention to public perception and lack of proper strategy can produce powerful consequences in the social media age.
Public opinion isn’t new. Support and complaints, boycotts and advocacy have long been a part of social interaction in the United States. But social media has provided unprecedented avenues for organizing and projecting public opinion into very public conversations.
Regarding Komen, Facebook pages and boycott websites went up within hours of the announcement of a policy change cutting off funding for Planned Parenthood. Within two days enough pressure had been applied to corporate sponsors, co-branding companies and individual donors that the breast cancer charity was forced to reverse course.
Many analysts are speculating the decision to defund Planned Parenthood (which involved less than $1 million of Komen’s $400 million annual budget) will eventually kill what was considered among the most powerful and successful charitable organizations in the United States.
Such predictions stem, in large part, from the sources of Komen’s revenue streams. Komen’s biggest funding stream relies heavily on private individuals to organize pink-ribbon events such as walk-a-thons in which participants pay to participate while at the same time promoting the brand.
Other items are far more complicated: Komen has disenchanted supporters on both sides of an ideological divide that they didn’t didn’t even approach in times past. Many defectors insist that Komen put politics ahead of women’s’ health, while a substantial number of others say it lacked the guts to follow through on a reasonable policy change. All have numerous places to keep voicing their positions. The situation continues to generate news stories and anti-Komen websites are still attracting significant traffic.
There is no telling when the negative tide will ebb. It isn’t just that some things never die on the internet. Komen had already racked up an impressive list of enemies even before the Planned Parenthood debacle. Now those established web sites are getting lots of traction for stories written over the past several years regarding Komen’s history as a less than benevolent charity, citing first and foremost the foundation’s penchant for suing anyone — including other non-profits — for any infringement on using “for the cure” in promotional material.
The breadth and depth of the anger at Komen speaks directly to the organization’s lack of strategy, poor planning and nearly non-existent anticipation of the firestorm ahead. In planning the policy change Komen apparently didn’t consider their audience of supporters or mission as a charity when viewing how their decision might play with the wider world. Given that months of preparation had gone into the policy change and its announcement, the charity was woefully unprepared to listen or respond to the social media eruption that immediately followed.
Due to such past behavior, as well as Komen’s muddled messages and disingenuous statements at the start of the Planned Parenthood crisis, there is almost nothing it can do to regain public trust or support.
Even if they have finally learned a necessary lesson, it may be too late for that to make a difference. The organization can’t dictate a graduation date or even passing grades. What happens now is largely in the hands of a very strident school master — social media.