Friday, February 3, 2012

If in doubt, start with honesty

One of the biggest stories this week has been the absolute train wreck that ensued when the Komen Foundation announced that it would cease funding of Planned Parenthood, which uses Komen funds to offer breast exams to lower-income women.

This is not a political blog, and I won't weigh in on either side of the abortion debate. Instead we're going to talk about messaging, particularly how Komen could not have made a worse mess of their communications if they tried. Komen is a private foundation, and they can fund whoever they want. But when they draft a new policy with the specific intent of targeting Planned Parenthood, and then go on record saying that they are not bowing to pressure from anti-abortion groups but merely responding to a Congressional investigation ... that was instigated by anti-abortion groups, their cause was lost. When their clumsy, disingenuous explanation of the change resulted in public outcry, Komen crucially had no response.

Communications are different today. Controlling the message involves active engagement across a variety of media from day one, and doing so requires that you have your messaging down, tightly written, and are prepared to respond to skepticism and criticism. Komen did none of these things, but those were secondary mistakes. Their first and fatal mistake was to build the initial message on a lie: that they were not doing what they were quite obviously doing. After that first, transparent falsehood, everything else that came out of their offices was viewed with suspicion -- and rightly so.

If in doubt, start with honesty. Respect your audience well enough to level with them. If Komen had come out and said, "Planned Parenthood is a valued partner, and we respect the work that they do, but unfortunately the time has come when our support of their efforts is costing us too much and distracting us from our other operations," things might have been very different. There still would have been some damage control, but it would have been a lot less than what we've seen develop.

The Komen brand was severely damaged this week, and it all started with the failure to respect the audience.