Communications Lessons All Nonprofits Can Learn from Komen’s Missteps

1. Communicate

It is always better to tell supporters about a change before it happens than answer to them after. Time and time again we see companies that try to hide potentially unpopular changes they’re making from their customers and supporters and it ends in a crisis of confidence.

Komen knew it was making a business decision that was controversial. They should have come out and told supporters about the decision before making the change. Would some supporters be upset and criticize the organization?  Absolutely.  But this would have given Komen an opportunity to talk with supporters, explain why they were making the change and acknowledge that some supporters may disagree. An open dialogue would have helped supporters understand Komen’s position and feel like their voice was heard by the organization.

Instead, Komen didn’t announce the decision and then initially hid from the backlash. This made Komen look worse because then people felt like they were intentionally trying to deceive their supporters.  Once you lose trust with your supporters, it’s so difficult to win it back.

2. Be Prepared

Another way to have an open dialogue with supporters about a difficult decision is to be prepared. Komen knew this was controversial and knew many among its supporter base would be upset with the decision.  So, they should have been prepared to answer the tough questions and criticism. They should have been able to easily articulate why they made the decision, acknowledge that it may be unpopular with some of their supporters, and give details on why they thought it was right for the charity.

Instead, Komen denied it was playing politics and said that it was reviewing all grants under investigation. No one believed this answer, further fracturing trust with supporters.

3. Know your audience

Who did Komen think they were talking to? Had they forgotten who these supporters are? The women and men who run to raise awareness and funding for breast cancer, who advocate on behalf of the organization, who volunteer at events, support their partners and donate their hard-earned money to the cause. These are active supporters, and, more importantly, emotionally engaged ones. There are so many charities in this country that are vying for people’s support.  So, why do people support Komen instead of another charity?  It’s personal. Many have lost someone to the disease or know someone struggling with it today.  It’s an emotional connection.  Komen’s own story is also built on emotion. The founder’s sister died of the disease and the organization was built on the founder’s promise to her sister to fight breast cancer.

The fact that Komen was shocked by the emotional response to their decision is amazing. They have been successfully harnessing the emotions of their supporters for years to help build awareness and raise money in the fight against breast cancer.  They need to understand that this personal connection is at the core of their relationship with supporters in bad times too.  That’s why the response was so emotional on both side of the debate.  That’s why so many women posted messages on Facebook and Twitter either attacking or applauding the charity.

Komen needs to talk to supporters in a way that keeps the emotional connection, whether their supporters agree or disagree with Komen’s business decisions. They also need to understand that one thing that helps keep the connection with supporters is to listen to them.

4. Know how to use social media

Again, Komen is great at talking to its supporters through social media when things are good.  Yet, when faced with this controversy, they ran from it. Deleting posts is a cardinal sin of social media.  If the post is profane, delete it. If it disagrees with you, keep it.  This is your opportunity to respond and have a one-on-one conversation with your supporters.

Earlier this week, Komen posted on its Facebook wall, We’d like to politely ask that the conversation on this page focus on the core mission of this community, which is to cure breast cancer. We welcome all thoughts, ideas and observations, but it’s critical that we not lose sight of what we’re all fighting for – a world without breast cancer. Thank you.”

What this says to supporters is, “Shut up. We don’t want to hear it anymore. We don’t want to talk about it.” Supporters understand that organizations may make decisions they don’t agree with or make missteps in how they handle a difficult situation.  At first, it’s disappointing. You question your commitment to this organization you have admired and supported.  Yet, if they listen to you and acknowledge your concerns, you’re more apt to continue to support them.  If they shut you out, you may question why you’re supporting them in the first place.

This is the most critical error Komen made throughout this entire debacle. It believed in one-way communication. Komen didn’t want to tell supporters something difficult, it didn’t want to hear their concerns, it didn’t want anyone else to read their comments and then it told them to stop commenting. Great charities are built on interaction.  Understanding how to keep that connection in both good times and bad is what keeps supporters. If Komen is the great organization we’ve previously known it to be, it will learn from and overcome its recent missteps. And we can all take a few lessons from its actions in the process.

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