by Daniel Martinage, CAE
This past weekend I facilitated a workshop on Keeping Your Board above Board for a small nonprofit organization based in New Mexico. Part of our discussion centered on the need to have crisis plans in place before disaster hits. With the Komen/Planned Parenthood “situation” still very much on people’s minds, the discussion soon became what NPOs can learn from this highly charged incident. Here’s my take on what we can learn.
• Our socially-networked world means that our words or actions can become “the shot heard around the world,” potentially rattling the foundation of even the strongest nonprofit monolith. There’s no doubt that Komen leadership underestimated the effect of de-funding Planned Parenthood. Social Media sites were on fire within hours of the story hitting the airwaves. Politico reported that Twitter users sent more than 1.3 million Tweets referencing Planned Parenthood and Komen. Facebook postings calling for action also reached extreme highs. The Komen Foundation’s delayed response—coming 24 hours after the story broke—created a communication tsunami that threatened to wash away the Foundation’s relatively positive public image. Listening and contributing non-defensively to the conversation early in a crisis situation is far more effective than shutting down while you “assess the situation.”
• Remember who your key stakeholders are and stay aligned with your core mission. For many years, the Komen Foundation has been the face and voice for breast cancer. In fact, their reputation stretched beyond breast cancer awareness to include related women’s health issues. This reputation hinged on the Foundation’s unbiased and supposedly nonpolitical stance. The unexpected decision to cut off funding to Planned Parenthood smelled of politics and alienated many of the organization’s most passionate supporters.
• Bad smells get worse if left to fester. Too much water passed under the bridge before Komen sent out a rescue boat. While Planned Parenthood’s Executive Director Cecile Richards was making the rounds of mainstream media shows, Komen’s CEO Brinker was nowhere to be seen. When she finally appeared on the Andrea Mitchell show, Brinker came off as poorly prepared and defensive. Although reversing their stance on Planned Parenthood funding was cheered by many, Komen was left with a black eye not likely to fade soon.
• Quite often a single situation or controversy gives way to intense scrutiny of all an organization’s activities. Not long after the initial story about Komen broke, “new” allegations of Komen’s chumminess with corporate sponsors surfaced. Suddenly, being pink wasn’t as clean as it used to be. Pictures of pink Kentucky Fried Chicken buckets and carcinogen-laced pink perfume bottles surfaced, supposedly shedding light on Komen’s questionable sponsorship of not-so-healthy products. Next came copies of Komen’s 990 forms showing hefty salaries for staff and consultants. Freshly hired Senior VP of Public Policy at the Komen Foundation was “outed” as a pro-life crusader who opposed Planned Parenthood, again creating a meteor storm of criticism.
When all is said and done, I see three critical lessons for NPOs to take away:
1. Social Media has changed the communication landscape and created a dire need for nonprofits to have a social media strategy—especially around key stakeholder engagement—before the proverbial xxxx hits the fan.
2. Don’t lose sight of who you are and who you represent. A good reputation is hard to build and relatively easy to lose.
3. With all the hype about Social Media, it’s easy to forget that underlying all the messages of support and/or criticism are very real human feelings. Dealing with emotions requires passion. Causes like breast cancer awareness are fueled by people who believe in the greater good—anything less is seen as politics as usual.
Daniel Martinage, CAE is an executive coach and consultant specializing in nonprofits and associations. The former executive director of the International Coach Federation Dan also serves on the Selection Committee for The Washington Post Award for Excellence in Nonprofit Management. His website is www.associationcoach.com.