Monday, February 06, 2012

Engaged to enraged: The "blister factor" in the Komen backlash

What if I told you that your organization or company could get these results in social media with almost no preparation and in just 72 hours:
  • 20 posts per minute from your Facebook followers on the wall of your corporate page;
  • For some of your Facebook posts, as many as 7,000-10,000 comments and more than 400 shares apiece; and
  • More than 130,000 views of your CEO's video message on YouTube, with close to 5,500 comments and about 8,000 people hitting a reaction button.
Or these results, achieved with some groundwork already in place:
  • 1.3 million posts in three days supporting your organization on Twitter, with 460,000 of those occurring on just one day;
  • Raising $3 million in three days, based on social media posts; and
  • Increasing your individual donors 400% within hours of losing a major six-figure funder.
In both cases, those fans weren't just engaged. They were enraged. The first set of numbers represent overwhelmingly negative online feedback followers and others sent to the Susan G. Komen Foundation for the Cure during the three-day firestorm following news of its decision to stop funding Planned Parenthood's breast cancer screenings for low-income women. The second set of numbers go to Planned Parenthood.

How negative was Komen's feedback? The 20-posts-per-minute were 20 negative posts per minute on Facebook for Komen. The close to 8,000 button-hitters on YouTube hit the dislike button 6,500 times. Komen had a long way to fall from the top in social media: In October, All Facebook put it among the top five "liked" nonprofits on Facebook and it still has more than a half-million "likes" there. 

Dubbed a mega-outcry, the controversy had some discussing why this de-funding of Planned Parenthood took off like a rocket, when the U.S. government almost shut down over the same issue last year, with a lot less public debate.  I chalk that up to the palpable relationship that thousands have with the foundation and its activities, based on their very real offline walks, donations and fundraising efforts. (They contribute taxes and votes to the federal government, but don't feel the same way about the relationship, I'm guessing.)  Similarly, traditional media coverage pegged this as a "social media firestorm," focusing on the numbers and the technology. But before you even start counting the social-media stats, Komen counts a base of "100,000 survivors and activists," and notes that it rallies "local activists in more than 120 cities and communities, mobilizing more than 1 million friends and neighbors every year" through its races and events.

Call it the blister factor: the millions of blisters developed, miles logged, friends asked for contributions, pink t-shirts donned and products bought with pink ribbons on them. The value of these volunteers, activists and survivors is their real-life presence and contribution, and while it may not match Komen's big-ticket sponsors in dollar value or social-media oomph, it matters to those who gave up their time, money and sweat. Cruise the comments and you'll see people pledging never to give, race or campaign for Komen again. Ironically, our love affair with virtual likes, fans and followers might have us forgetting the real people who do real things for our companies and organizations, from buying products to volunteering, donating and more.

There are enough public relations lessons from the Komen controversy to fuel 1,000 dissertations or more. But for those of us who need to maneuver strategically and in real time, here are the lessons I'm taking away from this, in terms of social media, followers and volunteers:
  • It's really time to get away from the more-is-better theory of fan numbers:  I know my savvy communicator-readers know this, but your senior management may still be calling for "more, more, more!" when they ask for proof that this social-media thing is working. Here's an opportunity to point out that more can backfire...
  • ...but there is one "more" to which you should pay attention: That would be the friends of your friends, the followers of your followers, the sharers of your likers' likes. I'm one in this case: I'm not a donor, volunteer or follower of either Komen or Planned Parenthood, but this week, I shared news, hit the like button and used my wall to pass on Planned Parenthood's messages in protest. By the way, Facebook's advertising tool makes it easy for you to get a count of the friends of your friends, and easy to reach them directly as well.
  • There are better ways to find out about the wisdom of the crowd: Social media or not, when I see a company or organization this far off-base about its followers' reactions, I know that it didn't just get out of touch yesterday. So I'll ask you: How often are you asking your followers what they think, not just about issues of the day, but about decisions you are considering or steps you might take? You won't be able to please everyone, but taking the sense of the crowd will increasingly be important if you are to avoid this kind of backlash. What would this have looked like if Komen had conducted a "listening tour" about whom it funds and how? Less like a surprise, for starters.
  • If you're not ready, we'll be able to tell right away: Social media can make your tin ear or blind eye obvious not only to your devoted followers, but the rest of The New York Times tells us "The controversy that burst into harsh public light this week had been brewing for years" and "When the decision was finalized in December, the thinking was that not announcing it publicly would help avoid controversy." But you knew that, just from the way this presented itself. If ever there were a case for saying, "Okay, but let's prepare something just in case we do need it," this would be it. Planned Parenthood, already used to attacks of this type, had a "Stand with Planned Parenthood" logo, Facebook profile badge and messaging already in use, and sounded as if its messaging was well-thought-out in advance...and ready to share to keep up with the explosive reactions.
  • What's the blister factor? If your online supporters have been active offline for you--and here I count groups like university students, consumers, and neighbors as well as volunteers and donors--figure out how to factor in their offline contributions when you consider their "likes" and follows and shares. If they've put some elbow grease behind their online presence for you, expect stronger reactions and the need to spend more, not less, time seeking their input.
Komen officials are now in "full damage-control mode," with a focus on fans and followers. But as any runner could have told them, the best time to take care of a blister is before it develops.

(Photo from Kodamakitty's photostream on Flickr. Sources for the social media statistics include coverage in the New York Times, YouTube, Jezebel, the Komen Foundation Facebook page, All Facebook, Please note that these numbers will have changed by the time this post is published.)

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