Komen Surveying Supporters On Next Moves, Image

February 24, 2012       Mark Hrywna      

Has Susan G. Komen for the Cure kicked up another hornet’s nest? If the reaction on Twitter and Facebook is any indication, you might say yes.

After what seemed like a quiet couple of weeks on social media for Komen, some users again were lambasting the Irving, Texas-based organization on Friday after The Huffington Post reported that Komen had hired a consulting firm to survey donors in the wake of the controversy over funding to Planned Parenthood. The survey asks donors whether the Komen still owes them an apology, followed by a list of potential apologies, and potential new spokespeople.

Among the 20 spokespeople listed are former elected officials, celebrities (some who have or had breast cancer such as Guiliana Rancic and Melissa Etheridge), medical professionals and Komen officials. Respondents are asked to rate them as very credible, somewhat credible, not very credible, not credible at all, or don’t know.

Komen spokeswoman Leslie Aun declined to comment on the survey or the organization’s communications strategy, only to say she was perplexed by the attention since they “communicate with donors all the time.”

It’s not uncommon for organizations to test platforms and messaging through surveys, but it is unusual that they become public, said Rebecca Devine, co-founder and principal of Philadelphia, Pa.-based Maven Communications. “Doing something like this is actually necessary to gauge sentiment,” she said. It’s unclear how big a swath of donors received the survey, whether it was just sent to 10 people or thousands. “They need to be having this discussion with core stakeholders,” Devine said.

“We just don’t know the background of who paid for it, was it sent to just donors or the general population,” said Devine, who started her career as an analyst at the firm that Komen hired, Penn Schoen and Berland (PSB). “I would think in addition to surveying they’re also talking to donors one-on-one, or at least in group settings asking, ‘How can we make this better?’”

Any time after a situation that was publicly disastrous, like the Komen-Planned Parenthood debacle, Devine said there is sensitivity around hiring any communications firm. But in most cases, she said, it’s a necessary step. The timing of the survey becoming public, however, “is incredibly bad. The wound is still fresh.”

For some, the missteps start at the top of the organization and flow down. The fundamental task of any board is to enhance the public trust in its enterprises, according to Howard Berman, author of “A Great Board,” and chairman of the Center for Community Engagement at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, N.Y. “What does a board have to do to enhance public trust,” asked Berman. “First, it starts with, what’s our mission? Is this action, a: consistent with our mission, and b: does it enhance our mission? If you can answer those two yes, then you go do it.”

In retrospect, Berman said Komen’s management didn’t anticipate the pushback, “therefore they were surprised — and boards don’t want to be surprised.” In making its initial decision, he said the board didn’t ask the critical question, “How do we explain it in a straight-faced soundbite?”

Added Berman: “You have to assume there are no secrets, so you’re going to be called to task for it. And if you’re called to task for it, can you explain, in a straight-faced soundbite, why you did it? So that everybody goes back and says, ‘Yup, I understand.’ And that requires management protecting the board from a surprise.”

For John Carver, it all goes back to the board. “Almost always, you can trace back any dilemma or insufficiencies back to the governance process. Sometimes back to individuals, but that’s one of the things we do when we don’t know what to do with the system: Blame individuals,” said Carver, the author of board governance books like “Boards That Make a Difference” and “Reinventing Your Board.” He described boards — whether nonprofit or for-profit – as “incompetent groups of competent people.”

“It’s a theory-less field for the most part, and that’s part of its downfall,” said Carver. “People throw pieces together that worked the last time they were on board,” he said, resulting in “a hodge podge” rather than a system is the norm not the exception.

“The board has to be in charge of the board, not the CEO in charge of the board and I’ve seen a lot of violations of those things,” said Carver.

Despite some calls for more resignations at Komen, spokeswoman Aun said there has been no turnover in executives or board members in recent weeks, since the resignation of Karen Handel, a senior vice president of public policy.