Beyond the political aspect of the whole Komen-Planned Parenthood debacle — which is why most of Komen’s partners likely stayed quiet — there are some lessons that companies can take from the last few days when they’re thinking about business decisions that could blow up on social media.
Control the news cycle. Put out a press release before someone else does (Planned Parenthood beat Komen to the punch). Tell your own people first, so they don’t read it on the Internet first. Recognize who the media might call for comment (think of them as influencers) and make sure they understand what you’re doing and why. When you’re rehearsing interviews (TV or print) with your executives, don’t throw them softballs. But also think about talking to reporters who have been friendly in the past because a lot of reporters will use those early stories when writing theirs.
Assume the worst going in. It’s difficult to believe that someone didn’t raise the question of the potential reaction. You need a place to clearly make your case. You need to have some idea of how you’ll respond to venom in 120 characters or less (not 140-you need to leave room for retweeting your message). You need to adequately prepare your senior leaders that you can’t hide, that it won’t die down, and that one comment will become 20,000 in the blink of an eye. Will you comment? When will you comment? Who will comment if you need to?
And take a look at your mission statement and see if your decision or action is consistent. Those things tend to end up gathering dust on the shelf, but this is the time to make sure you can defend your actions against a mission statement that you most likely created at a time when cooler heads were prevailing and everyone was being consulted. Are you ready to be accountable for your decisions — because social media is about to make you so.
How do you track the impact? The big question is whether the venom is coming from Komen’s core constituency (e.g., walkers and recurring donors). Do you have any way of telling whether the “haters” are also customers? Followers or Likes are not necessarily the best indicator. Part of this assessment for charities includes whether there’s competition for the dollars (both for cancer research and for charitable donations in general) and the likelihood that when push comes to shove, will people look elsewhere when it comes time to write the check or commit to the walk. You need to figure out what the right metrics are (let’s say recurring donations) and a way (and timeframe) to track them and then set expectations.
There are a number of questions in this area. There’s the point of view that you can’t afford to lose a single donation (or customer). But is that really true? If you’re losing “customers,” are they the “right” customers to lose? Every business has customers who are less profitable than others (or even ones who are unprofitable). In some cases, one of the impacts of a business strategy is that your better customers spend more or aren’t impacted by your decision and other high-maintenance, low-profit customers will go elsewhere. There’s also the question of whether donors or customers will watch the process and decide that you’ve either (1) learned from your mistake or (2) never personally had a bad experience with you and thus will decide to let this one slide because the cause or product/service is a good one.
Are we exposed in other areas? Reaction to the decision was one thing, but the comments quickly shifted to other things (e.g., executive salaries, percentage of donations spent on cancer research, amount of donations spent on Ari Fleischer). What other corporate strategies will be tied to this one? What long-buried news stories will be revived and replayed? Google your senior executives and see how they’ve branded themselves online (did Komen really think Karen Handel’s published views on Planned Parenthood wouldn’t become a big part of the story?). You have to ask the hard question — what else? — before moving forward. Like sharks to chum, people will look for your weak spot and remember — they’ll all attack from different perspectives.
Don’t make a controversial decision that will end up being your first REAL foray into social media. If you haven’t had conversations (as opposed to just listening or posting) with your customers and the blogsphere as a whole, this is not the time for on-the-job training. Now is not the time to create an infrastructure, to create approval processes that will help you respond within minutes or hours instead of days. Engage experts to create these processes because your senior leaders are not ready to deal with the ferocity of a negative social-media reaction.
What’s the impact of reversing your decision? Which hurt Komen more — the original funding decision or the reversal? There’s a trust question here. A reversal will raise questions both internally and externally about your will to implement tough decisions under pressure in the future. And businesses in general need to start being concerned about the way the recent string of reversals by different companies is empowering the blogosphere to feel that they can make a difference. Include an exit strategy in your original deliberations and assess the financial impact of flip-flopping.
Things look dark for Komen right now. But the real test will come not during this news cycle but 3-6 months from now. Will things have calmed down? And will Komen have taken actions that restore their constituents’ trust? Only time will tell.