Komen story bespeaks a cultural change of pace
By Tom Baxter
Last week’s story of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure cancer charity’s hasty retreat from its new policy excluding Planned Parenthood from funding followed what in the past few months has become a familiar arc.
Like Bank of America’s abandonment of its announced debit card fee, the Netflix retreat from its bivalved pricing system, and the reversal of fortunes for the SOPA/PIPA anti-piracy bills in Congress, that arc was a very short one. An aroused universe of customers/contributors/online users emerged quickly and a blast of media exposure forced the organizations involved to reverse themselves.
Certainly, these examples speak to the already well-understood power of the internet to focus a firestorm of negative attention, sometimes on subjects as passing as a singer’s performance on Saturday Night Live. But they may point to something deeper, a new wrinkle in a culture already molded by the requirements of rapid response.
We think of the latest developments in mass communications as the most decisive, but the rituals of media hari-kari have been in place since Arthur Godfrey fired Julius LaRosa on the air in 1953. It took months back then, and a spirited defense by the network, before the public’s rejection of the formerly popular television host was fully manifested. But there’s no way to prove that the public response was any less immediate.
What makes these recent stories distinctive isn’t the speed or the size of the response to a new policy, but the swiftness with which the organizations involved abided by the public judgment, leaving themselves virtually no time for managing the message or face-saving in the manner which has been customary since long before the establishment of corporate public-relations departments.
Komen employees reportedly were given talking-point sheets for defending the new policy cutting off Planned Parenthood, a bow to the customary ways in which sophisticated organizations present themselves to the public. But in the statement announcing the decision to end the policy, Komen founder and CEO Nancy G. Brinker dropped all the standard pretentions of damage control.
“We want to apologize to the American public for recent decisions that cast doubt upon our commitment to our mission of saving women’s lives,” said Brinker, who called the developments of recent days “deeply unsettling” for all those involved with the charity.
Did Brinker do anything to assuage the very difficult situation in which Komen now finds itself? In the case of Netflix, this new strategy – if you can call total contrition a strategy – has worked so far. After CEO Scott Hastings’ apology, the video rental service picked up 610,000 new U.S. customers in the last quarter, sparking a rebound in the stock.
Interestingly, 610,000 is also the number of people who said they switched banks during the same period in solidarity with the protest against the debit card fees imposed by Bank of America and other institutions. People may be more willing to forgive the service that sends them their movies than the place where they put their money.
You have to wonder, also, whether companies aren’t going to become more aggressive in testing new fees, and foundations, new policies, if there’s a perception that an overreach can be quickly retracted.
Some might question, in fact, whether that’s not largely what’s going on already. It’s pretty clear in the Komen case that the new policy which sparked all the furor was a reach, and not a blunder. The rule prohibiting funding to organizations under investigation was designed specifically to target Planned Parenthood. It would have been naive of the Komen officials not to expect a furious reaction, though they may have miscalculated how furious.
The Komen story was of cultural significance in another way as well. Brief though it was, it was a major political battle, waged almost exclusively by women in the prominent positions on both sides. If there’s an earlier precedent, I can’t think of it, but it’s certain this won’t be the last.
One of those participants was former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel, the Komen executive most closely identified with the decision to cut off Planned Parenthood. Despite some efforts by Komen officials to distance her from the story, it’s hard to separate the vice president for public policy from the public policy. Whether she can hang on after the policy has been changed is one of the few unresolved questions, as this story speeds into the media sunset.