The hits just kept coming for Susan G. Komen for the Cure.
The foundation that prides itself as the global leader in the fight against breast cancer on Jan. 31 announced it would cut all funding to Planned Parenthood Federation of America Inc., which amounted to roughly $700,000, due to an ongoing Congressional investigation.
Three days later, faced with a continuous barrage of criticism across multiple social media channels, Komen founder and CEO Nancy G. Brinker announced the foundation had reversed its decision and would restore funding for all existing grants.
On Feb. 7, a week after the initial announcement, longtime Komen executive Karen Handel resigned from her post as senior vice president for policy.
All the while, Planned Parenthood emerged smelling like roses and raised more than $3 million in just three days after launching a Breast Health Emergency Fund on Jan. 31.
A number of social media specialists based in Westchester said last week that had the Komen foundation anticipated the social media response, it may have been able to deflect much of the criticism while staying out of the national spotlight.
“I think it was a pretty controversial decision and they probably should have anticipated there would be a reaction but you can’t always predict every situation and how people are going to respond to things,” said Bridget Gibbons, CEO of Gibbons Digital Consultants, a social media marketing firm with offices in Bronxville and New York City.
Demand for social media support has ballooned over the past year, Gibbons said.
“When I started my business three and a half years ago I was talking to small- and medium-sized businesses about Twitter and Facebook and blogs and their eyes just glazed over because they could not see the business value of it,” she said. “I think now small- and medium-sized businesses have caught up and they can see that it’s ubiquitous.”
Gibbons Digital is one of many local companies that specialize in monitoring social media channels for companies that don’t have the staff or the time to do so on their own.
“There’s been a huge increase in the last 12 months with adoption by small-to-medium sized businesses in Westchester County,” she said.
Gibbons said companies either should be constantly monitoring social media venues or should employ public relations specialists to do the monitoring on their behalf.
Additionally, she said, companies must have a plan in place to handle any negative feedback that arises in response to particularly controversial issues.
“You really need to be monitoring at all times,” Gibbons said. “Within a few minutes they (Komen) should have said, ‘We hear what you’re saying, we’re having internal discussions about this, and we’ll get back with a more comprehensive policy statement as soon as we can.’”
Instead, the Komen foundation did not issue a statement for 24 hours after the initial announcement, which social media experts said allowed supporters of Planned Parenthood to seize control of the conversation.
“You have to be timely. You can’t wait 24 hours. You can’t wait two minutes,” said Bruce Newman, CEO of The Productivity Institute L.L.C., a consulting and marketing firm based in Carmel.
Companies need to be aware of the speed with which consumers are able to respond to issues over social media channels and the potential damage that can be inflicted by delays or vague responses, Newman said.
“The first thing that means is, you must be able to understand that damage can occur from social media and have ways to rectify that immediately,” Newman said. “The message that you give has to be a very straightforward, plain message. It has to be a very simple message that people can readily understand,” and not some legal jargon, he added.
Social media can conversely represent a powerful tool for small and large businesses, said Bob Knight, executive vice president for advertising and digital media at Harrison Edwards Public Relations and Marketing in Bedford Hills.
“Social media gives organizations the capacity to reach a wide audience very quickly and to engage with them but conversely it also gives the audience the capacity to reach and engage either with them or against them, so it works both ways,” Knight said.
While the Komen foundation sat idly, Planned Parenthood went on the offensive, launching its breast health fund the same day Komen announced it was withholding funds.
Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, called the outpouring of support “astonishing.”
“This compassionate outcry in support of those most in need rose above political, ideological, and cultural divides, and will surely be recognized as one of our nation’s better moments during a contentious political time,” Richards said in a Feb. 3 statement.
Not only was Planned Parenthood the recipient of widespread positive sympathies, but it was able to raise $3 million in three days, dwarfing the $700,000 in funding cuts that sparked the uproar in the first place.
Newman said the entire ordeal represents an important case study in crisis communications and an important reminder to companies that the social media movement is still growing.
“What we’re dealing with here is people just beginning to find their voices, with businesses and politicians just starting to realize how loud those voices can be,” Newman said.
While the Komen foundation was caught unaware, “Planned Parenthood on the other hand turns around and says, ‘We know all about social media’ and they helped orchestrate the campaign that just totally overwhelmed (Komen).”
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