The Komen About Face

February 04, 2012

The online controversy over the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation’s decision to cut off grants from Komen to Planned Parenthood focused an intense social media battle on a hot, politically charged issue.   A group that has relied on social media as a primary communications tool found out how quickly a powerful weapon can turn hostile.   What happened?

By Eric Rabe, Fels Senior Advisor

Late last year, Komen founder Nancy Brinker, a Republican donor and supporter, along with others at Komen, feared support for the politically controversial Planned Parenthood was costing Komen support and donations and distracting from the Komen races and 3-days that are central to their fundraising.

In a move that was not publicly announced, Komen changed its rules on grant-giving.  Although cast as a policy revision, the change had only one impact: to eliminate hundreds of thousands of dollars that flowed from Komen to Planned Parenthood for breast cancer screening and education.

When word leaked out, Komen seemed blindsided by the fury that flared on social media.  

A few facts are worth considering.  Firstly, women are active social media users.  Last summer, the Pew Internet & American Life Study reported nearly 90 percent of women 18-29 are online and nearly 70 percent of those say they log in to a social media site every day.  Younger women are particularly apt to be engaged in social issues including abortion.    

Both Komen and Planned Parenthood rely heavily on social media to spread their own messages.  Each has an active Facebook presence and Twitter streams and each can also be found on other social media sites.  Social media buzz is a key to fundraising by each.  Despite the perceived conservative tendencies of Komen, the group appeals to many who are actively involved and passionately engaged in women’s health issues including abortion rights.

The Komen cut-off of Planned Parenthood was quickly characterized as caving to right-wing, anti-abortion pressure, even by some of Komen’s own long-time supporters.  Planned Parenthood was happy to play on the theme, alleging political “bullying” by pro-life groups.  In just three days during the week of January 30th, Planned Parenthood took in $3 million in new donations, four times the usual grant from Komen.  

Komen had walked into a perfect social media storm. Passionate supporters and detractors were already active online.  Many of Komen’s own supporters also support Planned Parenthood.  Many perceived the issue as political interference in women’s health.  Women in particular were ready to turn to social media to express their views.  

Some 1.5 million Tweets later, Komen officials realized they had to retreat.  Planned Parenthood was quick to credit online supporters for turning the Komen decision around.  Komen had misread its supporters, their ability and their willingness to speak out.  

Now Komen faces a predictable and similarly vitriolic back-lash from those who oppose Planned Parenthood’s work.  Komen may have had no choice but to reverse itself, but there will be a cost to that decision as well.

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