Business/Finance

Komen hires the wrong PR firm, missing the boat once again (and some thoughts on PR Daily's coverage of the story)

So, the Susan Komen Foundation has hired a big-hitter PR firm. And not just any PR firm, either.

Now, Komen is assessing the damage, and it’s using a consulting firm founded by two former Democratic strategists. Penn Schoen Berland (PSB), the firm Komen hired to help determine how badly the crisis hurt its reputation, is founded by former Democratic strategists Mark Penn and Doug Schoen.

The goal here seems obvious. Komen’s recent bout of ballistic podiatry cost it massive amounts of support among people who believe that women’s health shouldn’t be held captive to a reactionary, partisan social conservative agenda. The foundation has accurately understood that this means it needs people from the center and points left in order to thrive. Or, at this point, survive. So they go out and hire … Mark Penn.

Wait, what?

I suppose the thinking is that Penn is “one of them,” a plugged-in Democratic apparatchik, and is thus well-positioned to help get the embattled foundation back on the right path. Well, maybe he is and maybe he isn’t. As it turns out, Penn is, in fact, tight as a banjo string with the Clintons and, if I might borrow a phrase from famed SNL sports commentator Chico Esquela, Obama been bery bery good to him, too. But Penn is loathed by the progressive wing of the American polity for precisely those reasons: he’s regarded as a centrist, corporatist machine whore who’d pimp his mother to the highest bidder. If you need evidence to support the allegation, please note that his firm is now working for the rabid social conservatives who cut off Planned Parenthood.

If you think you can win the center on issues of women’s health, good luck. But the presumption lies strongly to the left here, and it was the early warning array of the progressive infrastructure that created and whipped the backlash against Komen. It was not, as Komen seems to be thinking, about Republican/Democrat. If this were a crisis on Capitol Hill where inside connections and lobbying savvy were the mechanism of success, it might be a different story. Instead, this is a matter of public opinion that runs far deeper than party affiliations, terrain where Penn not only doesn’t help you, he hurts you. Not that Penn is untalented, exactly. He’s a pro’s pro, although as I think I may have suggested in the past, I’m not sure that’s necessarily a compliment.

I also have some problems with the PR Daily article on the story. I exchanged some e-mail on the subject with Michael Sebastien, the author and the founding editor of Ragan’s PR Daily. Let me be clear – I’m a regular subscriber to Ragan’s services and generally regard them to be essential reading for anyone in the field of professional communications. Not only do they cover the industry adroitly, their editorial content frequently exhibits a genuine pro-social ethos that the public relations field all too often seems to be lacking. Consider them recommended. In this case, though, I felt like Michael dropped the ball and I told him so.

He acknowledged my concern about the difference between progressive and Democrat in this case:

I appreciate the criticism, and I suppose the remark was a tad flip on my part. You’re right about Penn. Perhaps I should have referred to him as a man known for his work with the Democratic party.

He then challenged me right back:

But, I’m curious, what makes you say that progressives are the touchpoint? I don’t think the whole Planned Parenthood debacle would have shaken the organization so deeply if the touchpoint had been progressives. I think the people in the middle of the political spectrum are the touchpoint, and it’s among the reasons Komen reversed course and apologized. Wouldn’t bowing to progressives be seen as equally as bad as cutting funding to an organization over pressure from right-wing conservatives.

Which is a good point, and likely underlies the thinking at Komen. Here’s how I see it. In a nutshell, Komen is no doubt thinking “fuck the left, what we need to do here is win back the middle.” Sound strategy on its face, I suppose. As I note above, Penn certainly understands the center (or, more accurately, the center/right, which is where the Clinton and Obama power bases resides). But he has no access, that I have seen, to the infrastructure beneath the formal party apparatus. Need the president’s ear? Sure. Can Bill help out here? He’s on speed dial.

But the reaction against Komen was in no way formal. It was grassroots and organic, and the organizations affecting the path of that backlash were issue-oriented constituencies and alt-media (read, blogs) in nature. Penn has minimal influence in that world, if any. If Komen wants to go to war using big-ticket ad and PR campaigns (that is, traditional media tactics), they may enjoy some success. But they’re up against massive socially driven viral involving cancer victims who feel betrayed. Let’s just say this will be a fun case study to write up when all is said and done.

That’s how I see it, anyway. I invite Michael’s thoughts, either in the comments or, if he likes, I’ll be happy to post an op-ed.

Also, one final gripe that I didn’t raise with Michael before. He says:

Komen took a public lashing for its decision and later apologized and reinstated the funds to Planned Parenthood.

No, that’s what they wanted everyone to think they did. As I explained here earlier this month, Komen was executing a fairly obvious smoke-and-mirrors misdirection ploy, but when you read what they actually said, it was a pretend apology that didn’t begin to deliver what they implied. Worse, America’s newsrooms got flat-ass played.

I expect as much from the “press,” of course, but come on, Michael – you’re good at this stuff. You know how the game works but you wrote an article that bought into it, anyway.

I’d love to see you have another whack at the story with this conversation in mind.

Many thanks to Sebastien for allowing me to use his e-mail comments in this post.

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