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Levick Daily. Thoughts. Perspectives. Insights.

Crisis

Susan G. Komen: Decentralized Communications Puts the Focus Back Where it Belongs

Gene Grabowski
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Throughout October, Susan G. Komen for the Cure has been leveraging the opportunity afforded by National Breast Cancer Awareness Month to rebuild a brand tarnished by controversy.
 
Since the national non-profit made, and then reversed, its decision to halt funding for Planned Parenthood back in February, donations are down approximately 30 percent. Participation in the organization’s marquee fundraising races is down as much as 35 percent in some parts of the country. Now, Komen is counting on an advertising blitz to reverse these troubling trends and remind the public of the important work at the heart of its life-saving mission.
 
Noticeably absent from the online, print, and earned-media effort is embattled founder and former CEO Nancy Brinker, who transitioned into a “new management role” in August. Instead, the spotlight has been firmly affixed on everyday cancer survivors who are still here today because of the new treatment options that Komen fundraising helped bring about.
 
That’s a smart move for two reasons. First, it takes the focus off past mistakes and the leaders who made them. And second, it’s the continuation of a decentralized communications strategy that might very well have saved the organization during the controversy’s earliest stages.
 
For much of the past year, Komen’s central leadership has wisely ceded control of its messaging to its local chapters. In places such as Austin, Tucson, Reno, and Arkansas, volunteers with local affiliates have been fielding angry calls, responding to outraged emails, and meeting face-to-face with donors whose support could have dried up entirely in the wake of the Planned Parenthood fiasco.
 
Having had no say in the decision to defund Planned Parenthood, these local messengers delivered Komen’s crisis messages with a degree of caring and credibility that the organization’s central leadership simply could not attain. In the end, they were uniquely qualified to criticize the decision from afar, even as they reminded Komen stakeholders of all the cancer-fighting work that remains undone. All the while, central leadership resisted the urge to defend itself and remained virtually silent.
 
As a result of this decentralized approach, a brand that may have been destroyed has survived to fight the good fight another day. While Komen still has a long way to go and will no doubt have to apply other creative communications strategies to regain its former prominence, the organization has reminded every other group facing crisis that your messengers are often more important than your message.
 
Gene Grabowski is an Executive Vice President at LEVICK and a contributing author to LEVICK Daily.

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