By Richard Lavinthal, Founder, PRforLAW, LLC
The social network-launched, media-stoked furor over $680,000 in flip-flopped Planned Parenthood grants by Komen for the Cure shows how nasty collisions can occur at the three-way intersection of news, spin, and politics, especially if skilled PR professionals are not at least attempting to direct the traffic.
News? We all know that when we sit on it today, and surely when it’s bad news, it’s bound to seep (tweet) out like nasty flatulence you can’t hold in.
Spin? Komen decision opponents did a masterful job at harnessing social networks before the breast cancer foundation even woke up. They cleaned Komen’s clock even before their alarm went off.
Politics? It’s intertwined on both sides. Komen has said, again and again it wasn’t part of their mix, and then accepted the resignation of a former GOP gubernatorial primary loser from Georgia who had been their senior vice president for public policy for just seven months. This person reportedly is an avowed abortion opponent and may have helped to change the Planned Parenthood policy.
What does the pink ribbon need to do in the PR days ahead? The only thing it can do is continue its mission, explain what it is doing, and give PR a seat at the director’s table. Maybe their PR strategists knew about the decision to stop funding organizations under investigative clouds. Maybe they warned about a Planned Parenthood-fueled media backlash. Maybe Komen brass ignored the warnings.
There are doubts that their PR staff knew about the defunding or fretted about its disclosure. The reason: Even if they knew but were not permitted to announce the decision when the policy was adopted back in December, the moment this issue broke on Jan. 31st the media and the public should have been able to read a multi-page PDF linked on the Komen homepage clearly and logically explaining the process, the decision, and the methods the charity would use to vet and reinstate any grantee organization.
Buried in one of the organization’s three mea culpae, i.e. the February 3rd statement by directors and founder Nancy G. Brinker, is a promise to apply grant withholding only when investigations are criminal and conclusive, in other words, not just when a congressional committee investigates Planned Parenthood.
Now, according to Politico, Karen Handel, the former public policy senior vp, says Planned Parenthood and Komen quietly agreed to keep the defunding decision secret but Planned Parenthood reneged, unleashing a firestorm of social approbation and news copy that blindsided Komen.
Brinker, in the third Komen statement released February 7th admits they made mistakes in how they’ve handled “recent decisions” but didn’t explain what they were, which usually would be the first step towards transparency. However, she did manage to announce Handel’s departure in the last graf.
Now, let’s see how this could have been handled:
- Komen should have developed a policy that identifies conditions under which grantees should be barred from future funding;
- The policy should have enumerated actions that a recipient to be defunded could take to avoid debarment;
- Komen should have carefully investigated its grantees to identify at least three and preferably five recipients of continuing grants, irrespective of amounts, with possible legal, ethical or fiscal problems that might make them ineligible to received more funds under the policy;
- The organization should have drafted an addendum to its grand process/policy explaining this policy and setting certain performance standards for continuing to receive grants;
- The policy should have been disseminated internally, sent to every grantee, and posted online;
- In-house media relations would neither discuss the decision nor disgorge the name of any potential violating organization;
- One week later, letters should have been sent to each of the five organizations in danger of losing funding setting forth reasons and steps that could be taken to reverse the decision or reapply the next year;
- On the day the letter was sent Komen should have notified all its chapter directors, advisory board members and friends that five entities have been warned and the steps they would have to take to avoid losing funds but the five should not be identified; and
- When any of the five screamed to the media the response should have been to use the link to the entire policy and express a hope that the entities who would not be confirmed by Komen can bring themselves into compliance.
Of course, this exercise in PR strategy assumes that there are valid conditions that would cause Komen to refuse future funding to Planned Parenthood and others, and a trusted top in-house PR strategist is cognizant of everything the organization is planning and doing at the highest levels.
Florida Congressman Cliff Stearns, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Investigations, is leading the investigation into whether Planned Parenthood misused federal funds for abortions. Using a political investigation to pull the financial rug out from Planned Parenthood is a weak excuse unless it already has issued proof of billing or funds’ commingling crimes. Now that Komen is limiting cause to law enforcement investigations that strike pay dirt, they’re in less political territory.
When politics gets enmeshed into anything it’s bound to cause problems. Pity the PR person involved, unless he or she is an apparatchik (and spinning).
The best way to generate credibility with the media and the public is to be apolitical and honest.
Otherwise you could hang yourself with your pink ribbon.
Richard Lavinthal (http://www.Lavinthal.com) is a former metropolitan daily and New Jersey statehouse-based international wire service reporter; a 10-year lead spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice in New Jersey; the first director of communications for the N.J. (state) Division of Criminal Justice’ top marketing director for APBnews.com in New York City. At PRforLAW, LLC Lavinthal executes legal media relations strategy for attorneys from small and mid-size law firms and their clients with important cases, plaintiff or defense, civil or criminal.