Lessons from the Komen Controversy

Glenn Gaudet
Glenn Gaudet President & Founder, GaggleAMP

Posted on February 7th 2012

Lessons from the Komen Controversy

Brands beware. The era of social advocacy is here, and you better be engaged, or the good work you’ve done for years can be placed in jeopardy in a minute. Just ask the Susan G Komen Foundation which is reeling due to a backlash fueled by social media.

Consistent Stakeholder Engagement is Key to Protecting Brands During a Social Media Fueled Crisis

GaggleAMP just completed a comprehensive qualitative and quantitative analysis of various aspects of the Komen-Planned Parenthood controversy as played out through social media. The results are telling, and provide lessons for every brand. First and foremost, the data shows us that those who have a social media strategy focused on stakeholder engagement, and manage it consistently before a crisis hits, like Planned Parenthood, are poised to navigate the crisis more successfully.

Listening and engaging is more important than driving a defensive message. GaggleAMP analyzed posts made to Facebook and Twitter before and during the crisis. They found that Komen used social media as a monologue (just another platform for corporate announcements) while Planned Parenthood used social media to engage in a continuing dialogue with stakeholders, starting well before the crisis.

Komen violated the most important rule of social media advocacy – the need to consistently engage stakeholders. It’s the difference between being credible and authentic versus being seen as out of touch and aloof. Another interesting element revealed by the data is that Komen’s poor handling of the initial messaging – not being consistent, changing course, changing tone – apparently helped organize their opposition. Disciplined message delivery through social media is critical to success in overcoming a crisis.

Planned Parenthood Facebook Page Messages

As you can see from the messages above, the initial posts “Breaking” and “We’re taking steps” start the momentum. It’s important to note that they had been consistently engaging stakeholders on Facebook prior to this. Then in less than 24 hours, they were able to engage with their stakeholders and deliver a knock out punch that reverberated both in and out of social media. This campaign reached its tipping point through social media based on a constant drumbeat of engagement.

That tipping point? A letter from the board? A video? A retweet of a press release? No, an incredibly simple message: “Are You? Share!”

This was accompanied by an image of a pink square with white lettering stating “Still Standing with Planned Parenthood” That simple post received over 15,000 comments and 22,000 shares. Shares are very telling as most people will share a message if they agree with it. Sharing a message on Facebook enables your friends to see it on your wall. Given that the average number of friends on Facebook is 130, the gross potential reach for this single message was almost 2.9 million people. That’s 22,200 engagements of key stakeholders to drive this message, reaffirming the relationship and driving a narrative of support that now had a potential reach of 2.9 million. Now let’s contrast this to the Komen messaging and results during the same time period.

Susan G. Komen Facebook Page Messages

On the Komen side of the equation, there was no acknowledgement of the issue at the time of the announcement. In fact, there was no message on January 31st at all!

This did not stop the detractors, who used a message that was posted on January 30 as a mechanism to comment on their dissatisfaction. Inconsistent engagement, weak and absent messaging leading up to the crisis, left Komen at a communication disadvantage.

At the height of the crisis, their first message of the day garnered 3,218 likes, over 10,000 comments and only 436 shares. Compare this message’s gross potential reach of 56,680 to that of the 2.9 million of the Planned Parenthood message.

What about the 10,000+ comments? That must be worth something right? It is but it may not be what you think. When reviewing the comments, you will find a large amount of negative comments. Take this one for example: “’At Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the women we serve are our highest priority in everything we do.’ When the first sentence of your spin-doctor statement is a lie, I don't need to read the rest. Shut this organization down, before you break the hearts of any more sick women.”

Or this: “Number of women who are diagnosed with breast cancer every year: >200,000. Number of women cured by useless politicking, lying, and doubletalk from charities that are supposed to be helping them: 0.” The anti-Komen sentiment is strong to say the least. Consider that a search of the “Susan G. Komen Foundation” on Facebook now yields a growing list of anti-Komen pages as the top of the search results.

In addition, the presence on Facebook saw minimal consistent engagement leading up to the crisis, and then what we would characterize as defensive messages throughout the crisis. That’s why a once revered brand flipped so quickly from partner in women’s health issues to predator status, and saw a lot of the goodwill built previously lost. Things did not fare much better over on Twitter. The Komen Foundation’s Twitter posting activity prior to the crisis was minimal, which is to be expected, but when the crisis hit, their reach grew to nearly 1 million. And again, since the messaging was defensive and inconsistent, the exposure helped to dilute the brand and actually turn the tide of social media against them. A look at the chart below paints a telling picture of the activity before and during the crisis. Planned Parenthood, in blue, was active on Twitter leading up to, during and after the crisis. Compare that to Komen’s activity (in red) on Twitter which was less frequent then found itself reacting feverously during the crisis:


The bottom line is that Komen’s messages and indeed their brand was hijacked during this crisis – literally co-opted by Planned Parenthood’s followers, who were consistently engaged and motivated. The Komen controversy offers lessons for every brand:

  • Don’t Wait. Build and regularly exercise a group of stakeholders that can help you in a crisis. Only, don’t wait for a crisis to build this group. Stakeholders are anyone that has a stake in the success of your brand, issue or message. In this case, Planned Parenthood nurtured their base of stakeholders via Facebook and Twitter. When the time came to mobilize the troops, they were there. Susan B. Komen on the other hand found itself scrambling at the last minute.
  • Get engaged. Everyone knows they need to be in social, but it takes more than just putting a junior staffer on the job, having a Facebook Page and a Twitter account. Everyone drives content through social media, but more important than what you say is what your stakeholders are saying. In other words – get engaged not just to share content, but to listen. If you listen well, you’re likely to hear things percolating, which will allow you to deal with issues before they become a full-blown brand crisis.
  • Message Discipline is critical for survival. You need to have a content plan, a firm sense of your brand and your messaging locked down. Social media is not the place to play out internal squabbles or inconsistent messaging. Social media, with its ability to amplify messages almost instantly, is no place for ambiguity. In fact, it’s where poorly defined brands and inconsistent messages go to die.
  • Stakeholders Amplify Your Message. The beauty of social advocacy is that you have a built-in network of issue stakeholders to help you through a crisis, IF you handle the situation correctly. It is absolutely critical that you be quick, authentic, transparent and effective in your communications. Don’t deal with a crisis by just tweeting a press release and expect that will suffice.
  • Social media is a brand play. Given the proliferation of consultants in the space, social media has become commoditized. To make margins, far too many on the corporate and agency side populate their social media operations with inexperienced junior staffers and place constraints on how those who are able to engage on behalf of the organization must do so. Therefore, stakeholders are often left to engage on their own or through others. If you haven’t done so already, have someone conduct a social media audit to analyze your social media efforts, align them with your brand and amplify the right messages to power your advocacy efforts.

Of course, all is not lost for the Susan G. Komen Foundation. They’ve done a lot of good work and built up considerable brand equity over the years. Like every brand, they would do well to upgrade their content strategy, focus their engagement on stakeholders and get in the game – because as we see from this situation those who choose not to engage in social media do so at their own peril – and their brand’s.

About the post authors:

Glenn Gaudet, is the President and Founder of GaggleAMP and the author of Community, Connections and Conversation: Making Social Media Work for Business. Lane Bailey, CEO of the Advocom Group, was previously Chief of Staff to U.S. Senator John D. Rockefeller IV and President of Public Affairs for Golin Harris.

Glenn Gaudet

Glenn Gaudet

President & Founder, GaggleAMP

Glenn brings over 20 years of comprehensive experience in both strategic and product marketing for companies ranging from startup to $1 Billion in sales. He has delivered results in both marketing technology as well as using marketing technology.
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Posted on February 7th 2012 at 5:44PM

I've been following the Komen/Planned Parenthood story and some of it's social media aspects, but it's nice to have some of the data and specifics detailed on how this all played out. Now I see a top person resigned today too. The story keeps going. Thanks for your insight.

Glenn Gaudet
Posted on February 7th 2012 at 9:04PM

Thanks for reading!

Posted on February 7th 2012 at 8:31PM

Komen's brand was not exactly "hijacked." The many messages made legitimate reference to an action taken by the Susan G. Komen Foundation, and reflected authentic public reaction to that. If all those messages had expressed enthusiastic support for that action, we'd call that "viral," right?


The Susan G. Komen Foundation has tremendous expertise in cultivating a following. Their Facebook page has twice the Likes of Planned Parenthood's (more than 500,000 for Komen vs about 250,000 for PP,) they have hoards of supporters so motivated that many travel at personal expense to walk for three days each year. They raise oodles of money from corporations and the public.


It matters that Planned Parenthood was prepared, for sure. But wasn't the real issue for Susan G. Komen the decision that they made, the motivations behind it, and how the public felt about that, rather than the limits of their social media planning?

Glenn Gaudet
Posted on February 7th 2012 at 9:12PM

Thanks for the comment Metabrown. You raise some interesting points.

There is no doubt that there were many factors that drove passions on both sides. The subject matter, traditional media and other factors clearly had an impact on all aspects of the story and interest. However, our analysis covered just the social media component. 

That said, you raise an interesting point about Facebook Likes. If Susan G. Komen Foundation had twice as many Likes as Planned Parenthood, why didn't they have twice as many supporters commenting to their aid on their Facebook Page posts. One would think with 500,000 supporters, surely there could have had more positive comments. Facebook "Like" activity is a one time activity for the person that Likes a page. For many brands, they are lulled into a false sense of comfort when they have a large amount of Likes. Clearly in this case, it did not help. 

The take away from our analysis was that Planned Parenthood regularly and actively engaged with their stakeholders. This provided them with a passionate army of supporters. These supporters became very active when they were called upon. Susan G. Komen Foundation, despite their Facebook Like numbers, found themselves without many energized supporters on social media.  


Posted on February 7th 2012 at 9:28PM


It isn't as if these were opposing teams. Many of the people sending around angry notes were Komen supporters (at least until January 31.) If the Komen Foundation had urged people to call representatives about a bill funding cancer research or something similar, we'd have seen tremendous activism from their supporters around that. The problem was not that Komen hadn't cultivated support, but that they misjudged what was expected in exchange for that support.

I surely agree that Planned Parenthood did many things right, and we can learn from that.

Posted on February 7th 2012 at 10:02PM

As one of the people behind the study, I think the greater point here is the need for stakeholder engagement in advocacy campaigns. Your comments are thoughtful, Metabrown. I think you hit the nail on the head when you used the word expectations. If indeed the Komen stakeholders were engaged and just switched sides based on a move, then someone misread the expectations badly. I think to your first post, the real issue isn't about the ultimate decision or even how it was made -- every organization is entitled to its own mission, even if that mission changes and I personally don't like it. But where Komen lost people, in my view, is in how they went through this process as much as what they did. By not authentically and transparently engaging stakeholders through the process, they not only lost people, but they organized their opposition. I am one of those people who has walked for Komen, and who has lost family members to cancer -- my motivation, however, isn't for Komen -- it's for those I lost. For Komen to think they're entitled to my support, or expect that I would go with them no matter what they do because they're focused on good works, speaks to how they might be out of touch and the lack of engagement they had and may still have.

Research shows that brands today are perceived in one of two ways: as friends or foes, partners or predators. How a brand connects to its stakeholders determines the status of that relationship. It's why many will pay a premium for Apple or Starbucks, but will fight back on a $5 fee from Bank of America. Komen now finds its revered brand has flipped from friend to foe. They need to recognize this, and begin to more authentically engage their stakeholders on a consistent basis if they want to win their way back. Great comments, metabrown. Love the discussion...

Lane Bailey
Posted on February 8th 2012 at 1:45AM

Metabrown - I think there's another interesting and important point to underscore - social media dialogue requires an advocacy organization to be highly organized around message discipline.  What words and phrases catch the eye make all the difference.  Many of the Komen Tweets and posts read like press statements - lacking the discipline of the message they needed to convey - not in 140 characters, but in the first 3 or 4 words.  

And, you're right, these weren't two competing teams, but in terms of mind share and eye balls, there was a competition in play for which of these 'friendly' organizations was right, and which was wrong, and who had the power to demonstrate that.

Syed Noman Ali
Posted on February 8th 2012 at 8:22AM

For some, the end result means the matter is resolved and it is simply time to move on. Others feel as though healing is not that easy, and they've been left with post-traumatic stress disorder, philanthropic edition. Regardless of where you stand on the issue -- and which member of the couple you took sides with during this trial separation -- there are lessons all of us who care about women's health and social change can glean from this saga

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