Power of the People: Planned Parenthood vs. Komen for the Cure

If you still had doubts about the power of social media after the SOPA incident, the recent Komen vs. Planned Parenthood incident should erase them.

Unless you live under a rock, you’ve no doubt heard that Komen for the Cure recently decided to halt grants to Planned Parenthood that were mainly used for breast cancer screening for women who needed financial assistance. Planned Parenthood said the move was made as Komen gave in to pressure from anti-abortion activists. Komen said the main reason was that Planned Parenthood was under investigation in Congress. (To learn more about the investigation, click here to read an LA Times article.)

Though many blog entries, news articles and op-eds have been written on this PR disaster, what we should take away is the role social media played. The story could have gone under the radar, especially because the amount of money involved was such a small portion of Planned Parenthood’s annual budget. Instead, Facebook and Twitter users employed these tools to speak out against Komen’s decision. What used to be something discussed over dinner, has now turned into instantaneous posting, viewing by social media users, and potentially allowing millions to see.

Minutes after the news broke, social media sites were bombarded with viewpoints on the decision. Women from all over announced they would “stop buying pink.” A “Komen Can Kiss My Mammogram” board on Pinterest was created, pinned with “I support the cause, not the pink” and “We will not RUN for Susan G. Komen, we STAND with Planned Parenthood” pins. On the other side, anti-choice supporters were also vocal with their tweets and posts, like encouraging followers to write to Komen to thank them “for their truly pro-woman decision to defund abortion group.”

One of the several anti-Komen pins found on Pinterest.

What was most surprising was Komen’s response: no immediate response. Komen didn’t post to its social media sites the day the story broke or the day after. Its only action of Facebook was to delete the anti-Komen comments. On Twitter, it only tweeted a story about prostate cancer in mummies. Even Komen sponsors received backlash from Planned Parenthood supporters. People vowing to join an “Energizer boycott,” until Komen reversed its decision, quickly overtook the battery provider’s Facebook page.

Komen has since reversed its decision, planning to “amend the criteria to make clear that disqualifying investigations must be criminal and conclusive in nature and not political,” according to The Wall Street Journal.

Obviously ignoring a problem is not the best way to handle a situation. Komen was barraged with angry reactions and promises to take donations elsewhere, while Planned Parenthood gained 10,000 new donors, raised $3 million in three days and managed to recast its controversial image. Komen acted like this incident was taken completely out of context and had nothing to do with pro-choice/anti-choice politics, but with the presidential election coming up in November, American’s are extra-sensitive to hot issues like abortion.

So, what now? Komen’s next moves are very crucial to the organization. It’s going to take years, if ever, to regain the public’s trust. According to Bloomberg, two-thirds of more than 3,600 sentiments expressed online about the split were negative to Komen. Even after the decision was reversed, questions have been raised about Komen “playing politics with women’s lives.” It doesn’t matter now how much money the foundation has raised in the fight against breast cancer, it will have every move questioned from now on. Will Komen choose sides in the abortion debate? I guess we’ll have to wait and see. It’s already a lose-lose situation, in my opinion. Komen angered and lost the trust of pro-choice advocates by pulling money from Planned Parenthood, and then did the same thing to anti-choice advocates by reinstating the grants.

I think the most important thing right now is transparency. Anti-choice supporters have come out to say they didn’t even know Komen supported Planned Parenthood, and pro-choice advocates may never trust anything Komen communicates ever again. Komen executives need to act quickly and communicate everything to the public. Instead of having a silent social media presence, its activity should be off the charts. It should use the “hair of the dog” approach with its social media strategy. Social media had a major affect on Komen’s image last week. This week, the goal should be to use social media to regain trust (and followers). Every move Komen makes is going to be scrutinized, but engaging with its social media fans is a much better plan than staying silent and inviting more distrust.

– Sarah Funderburk

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