I want to diverge a bit from sustainability to talk about an important case in nonprofit public relations. This morning I talked with a New York Times reporter about the Susan G. Komen crisis that unfolded earlier this year. As I was preparing for the interview, I was piecing together the timeline since the initial announcement by Planned Parenthood that Komen would no longer fund its cancer screening services. It is fascinating to me that after the crisis, corporate partners continued to support the organization, even increase their association with the organization, clearly indicating that Komen is a good cause marketing partner. But, the advocates and fundraisers at the local affiliates are seeing a significant drop off in funding for their Race for the Cure, a primary source of income for the local affiliates.
So, why the disparity? Why are corporate partners still onboard with the organization but local supporter are not?
Here’s what I think. No one anticipated that Komen would make a politically motivated decision with its funding (let’s set aside the debate over whether it was truly politically motivated, and let perception be reality). So it caught the public, supporters, and partners by surprise. When Komen reversed its decision, the public moved on pretty quickly, but local fundraisers, advocates, and supporters felt betrayed by the decision. Pink still sells products, because the investment is low. I can buy a pink product for the same price as another, so why not let some of the money go to a good cause. But, raising money for a charity or making a donation requires a higher level of involvement. Supporters of the local affiliates have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the nonprofit. Some feel that Komen’s decision revealed a political motivation, and they feel betrayed.
Add to that the unique circumstances in this crisis. The issue that Komen engaged was outside of its mission, and for some women, that issue is more critical than breast cancer research. So, while some past supporters may continue to feel good about giving to Komen to support cancer research, others feel good about NOT giving to Komen and thereby taking a pro-choice stand. Komen has created a dilemma for some groups, forcing them to choose between two important issues. Fighting breast cancer is a cause that brings people together, but abortion is a cause that polarizes them, and Komen introduced a source of conflict into its organization when it made the ill-fated decision.
So where did Komen go wrong in its public relations? Here are five key missteps.
- First, decision makers didn’t vet the idea broadly. Had they consulted with a PR agency (I believe Ogilvy was on retainer but was not told about the decision before it became public) they would have been advised to take a different approach to the issue. I’ve read that the board did ask senior management to project consequences that may result from the decision. Based on their research, management recommended Komen continue funding Planned Parenthood, but the board disregarded the recommendation (the issues with nonprofit boards is a topic all its own).
- Second, they didn’t own the story when it came out. They let Planned Parenthood own it.
- Third, they didn’t respond with full disclosure. If they had revealed their dilemma with pro-life supporters, the public may have been more receptive (it would have been most effective to talk about the dilemma publicly before the decision was made).
- Fourth, they didn’t engage with the media and publics quickly. Instead employees issued generic statements and deleted posts from the Facebook page.
- And, finally, they didn’t clean house quickly. The significant personnel changes that we’ve seen over the past few months should have happened right away in February.
What can we learn from the case? Nonprofits (or any organizations) must be transparent in their communication about decisions, especially highly contentious ones. The board should have known that the public would view the Planned Parenthood decision through a political lens. Either they missed it, or they misjudged it by thinking the public would be forgiving because of the good work they have done. It’s possible that they thought the story would never surface, but that, too, was naive.
The second lesson is this: engage with your stakeholders. The backlash that Komen is feeling right now comes from local supporters and fundraisers. If they had engaged with the affiliates before the decision, the outcome may have been better. I see Komen making much more effort to bring affiliates into the conversation now and even put the spotlight on the impact in local markets.
Will Komen’s reputation be completely restored? As long as abortion is a hotly debated issue, it may be difficult for the nonprofit to restore the relationship with a portion of its base. However, I see Komen trying to refocus on the outcomes of its research investments and the impact of its local affiliates, and that’s where the nonprofit needs to be focused right now. This will help restore its reputation.
Earlier this week I pointed out that the top climate change nonprofits are not actively using health frames when talking about environmental issues. But, just a few days ago, when Congress passed the “Stop the War on Coal Act” the nonprofits came out in force, pointing out how lowering the bar for polluters raises the risk for public health. Sierra Club, in a news release on its website, pointed out that by passing the bill, republicans in the House “are seeking to lay waste to numerous public health protections critical to ensuring that American families have safe air and clean water.”
Sierra Club offers a nice summary of impacts from the potential legislation. Below is a list pulled from its website:
- “Gut the Clean Air Act by repealing life-saving clean air safeguards against deadly soot and smog pollution and eliminate any national protections for toxic mercury;Bar the Environmental Protection Agency from issuing safeguards for carbon pollution by redefining the term “air pollutant” to exclude greenhouse gases;
- Handcuff the Department of Interior from issuing safeguards to prevent streams from destruction if doing so would prevent the mining of a single lump of coal;
- Allow for the uninhibited dumping of toxic, carcinogenic coal ash while allowing coal companies to avoid fixing unsafe coal ash dumps, cleaning up the sites they have contaminated, or preventing another catastrophic disaster like the Tennessee TVA spill in 2008;
- Kill key pieces of the Clean Water Act that allow the EPA to enforce water quality standards and protect waterways from pollution;
- Roll back recently finalized vehicle fuel efficiency standards that will save drivers thousands at the pump, reduce our dependence on oil and create jobs in the auto industry.”
Why the sudden focus on health? It appears that nonprofits do see the link between pollution and health, and I think the science would support that link. The link between melting ice caps and health is a bit more difficult to pin down. I appreciate that nonprofits are pushing the health message around the Coal Act, because it does, in fact, have consequences for the health of many Americans.
Earlier this week I wrote about the challenge of framing global warming effectively and how linking health to environmental damage could be a profitable strategy (see related NPR story). Turns out, only a couple of the largest nonprofits addressing global warming promote a clear relationship between the issue and human health. Philanthropedia released a report titled National Climate Change 2012 Top Nonprofit Ranking, and a quick review of the landing pages for the nonprofits found that only two mentioned health issues or in any way linked the environment and health.
On one, the Union for Concerned Scientists is trying to Make Pfizer Feel the Heat by asking the public to express their disapproval for Pfizer’s funding of the Heartland Institute, a think tank that denies the link between health and global warming. The other, the Environmental Defense Fund website, prominently features Health as one of its main sections.
I’m certainly not suggesting that public health be the most prominent message from environmental groups and nonprofits, but I do think they should talk about the impact of environmental changes on human health. If we can show the public how decisions toward the environment affect their health and the health of their children, I suspect they will be more sensitive to making the right choices.
NPR ran a great story this week on communicating about global warming. According to research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the public doesn’t react as strongly to messages about melting ice caps and endangered polar bears as they do to threats to their own health and the health of their children. So, what does this mean for sustainability communicators? It means that we might be using the wrong frames to motivate environmentally responsible behaviors.
Do the symbols that we use for global warming miss the mark?
We know that those who already care about an issue like global warming are more likely to pay attention and act on relevant messages, but that doesn’t help us motivate those who don’t care. The NPR article raises the possibility of tapping into the emotions of those who are apathetic about climate change, by connecting the issue with the reality of public health.
Another interesting issue that the article raised was the credibility of those who typically promote environmental messages (politicians, environmental activists, journalists, etc.) vs. healthcare workers. Health officials, as the article says, are trusted more than other sources, and as a result their messages are more readily accepted. Considering this, environmental groups might find partnerships with health officials to be more effective than celebrity endorsements (not to diminish the effectiveness of this strategy with youth) to raise awareness of the consequences of environmental damage.
As the article suggests, not everyone agrees that health and environment can be linked in this way, but one of the main proponents for this new strategy, Matt Nisbet, is quoted in the article. You can read more about his thoughts on communicating about climate change in an upcoming book that I edited with Lee Ahern titled Talking Green: Exploring Contemporary Issues in Environmental Communications. The scheduled publication date is mid-October. More to come.
As a side note: Research that I conducted with Lee Ahern through the Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication at Penn State University looked at 30 years of environmental communication and found that ads tended to position environmental actions as good for the earth (rather than warning that lack of actions would lead to harm to the earth). And, the ads advocated for taking action (recycling, signing a petition, etc.) rather than conserving (using less water or electricity). See more articles about findings from this project here and here.