Crises range from a natural tragedy to a startling accident to a deep-rooted scandal involving a single employee. Given the political nature of health care and the delicacy involved with patient care, a crisis can arise from any facet of a medical organization.
Susan G. Komen was recently the subject of a national political controversy after its decision to retract funding from one of its most prominent beneficiaries. We sat down with Stephanie Kirby, Executive Director of Susan G. Komen for the Cure’s Southern Nevada affiliate, to learn more about how the national controversy impacted the local affiliate, how the organization responded to the incident, and how the local affiliate is moving forward in 2012.
Tell me about yourself and your role with Susan G. Komen.
I began volunteering for the Southern Nevada Affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure in 2002. My mother had died from breast cancer in June 2000 after a recurrence. She fought incredibly hard, but it had spread to her brain. Radiation to her brain took a toll on her and it was hard for her to regain her skills. I returned to Las Vegas after caring for her for two months and she died three weeks later. I felt lost and sad and it wasn’t until I finally looked up one day and saw the sign for Susan G. Komen that things began to change. I walked into the Komen office and never looked back. In 2009, I became the executive director and I honestly love going to work every day. Words cannot begin to describe the phenomenal volunteers I am surrounded by on a regular basis.
What is the overall mission of the organization in women’s health care?
The Susan G. Komen for the Cure promise is to save lives and end breast cancer forever by empowering people, ensuring quality care for all and energizing science to find the cures. Seventy-five percent of every dollar raised stays in the community to support organizations that are in line with our mission and can provide direct services to those affected by breast cancer. Services include screening, education, support and treatment. We have always focused on women and men who are largely uninsured or underinsured with less access to adequate care. The remaining 25 percent is directed to our national research and grants program which is focused on finding cures. Millions of dollars have been put into research and we are ultimately doing what we do in order to find the cures. There are several types of breast cancer and perhaps even some that have yet to be discovered, which is why we say we need to find the cures, plural.
What are your marketing initiatives and goals this year?
The marketing initiatives and goals for 2012 include coordinating and executing a successful Race for the Cure on May 5. We would also like to expand our reach into the rural areas of Southern Nevada. Our service area includes six counties: Clark, Lincoln, Nye, Esmeralda, White Pine and Mineral. Some of these areas are several hours away from any kind of health care facility. We would like to strengthen our relationships with the medical community in these areas. In a time when resources are stretched thin, collaboration can be a wonderful way to reach a larger audience. We are also focused on creating new partnerships in the community with organizations and individuals who can work side by side with us to make sure the services, we feel are necessary in the community, actually exist.
Recently, Susan G. Komen received some negative attention on a national level with regards to its relationship with Planned Parenthood. How did the national incident impact the affiliate locally?
February brought a tremendous amount of negative attention to Susan G. Komen as an entire organization. There are 120 affiliates who work under the umbrella of the national office and, though we each have our own unique areas of the country, we all follow the same policies and regulations. The decision to discontinue the relationship with Planned Parenthood was made at a national level. It was a tremendous lapse in judgment and the decision was reversed. Apologies have been made, but the wake of confusion, anger and distrust is what remains. Out of the 120 affiliates that exist, 19 funded their local chapters of Planned Parenthood. The combined total of grant funding for a year for Planned Parenthood from those 19 affiliates is about $600,000. To put that in perspective, our affiliate granted out $725,000 in 2011. I am not attempting to minimize the partnership between our two organizations, but I think it is important for people to know the facts. Locally, we have not funded Planned Parenthood in a number of years. We do, however, provide them with educational materials, make referrals and work on committees to assure the population that we both serve has access to breast health care. The decision hit our affiliate, as well as almost every affiliate, extremely hard. I received hundreds of emails from people who felt we had turned our backs on low-income women. When the decision was reversed, I continued to receive emails and phone calls with negative messages from individuals who do not support Planned Parenthood and their initiatives. Those who were originally angry were glad to hear of the reversal but remained angry that it happened at all. We need to work to regain the trust of those who have believed in us for three decades.
What did you do at the local level immediately following the media incident and what are you doing to recover from it?
The first two days after the decision became public consisted of fielding calls and emails non-stop. Everything we were doing came to a screeching halt, with the exception of the calls from women who needed to know where they could go to get help…those calls do not stop. We released a statement to our supporters trying to [explain] a very confusing situation, which was difficult, as we were equally as confused. The following day, the decision was reversed and we released a letter to our supporters. The letter was taken well by some and not so well by others. Without separating our affiliate from our national office, I needed people to understand that our office had not changed one bit with the original decision nor the reversal. What has changed is the level of trust, as I mentioned above, and I am hopeful the community will give us another chance. It will take a willingness to speak openly and answer questions, which I have been doing since this situation started.
What marketing events and next steps are coming up for Susan G. Komen’s Southern Nevada affiliate?
We are very aware of the challenges that lie ahead, but that cannot stop our work to raise dollars to put back into our community to assist with access to care. Our 17th Annual Race for the Cure will take place on Saturday, May 5 in downtown Las Vegas. Our next grant cycle will begin in April with hundreds of thousands of dollars going right back to our community. We are collaborating with the Northern Nevada affiliate to make sure our entire state is represented and that our elected officials understand our mission. Every day, I look at a picture of my mom on the wall in my office. I know she would be proud and I know what I do on a daily basis is what I was meant to do. We all make mistakes, but it is how we grow from those mistakes that will show who we truly are. Susan G. Komen for the Cure is committed to becoming a better and stronger organization and I believe we have the opportunity and strength to do exactly that.
The Susan G. Komen controversy demonstrates why it is imperative to handle these situations with the utmost efficiency and care. Amid a crisis, companies must be transparent, honest and ready to disclose any and all information pertaining to a specific situation.
The worst thing a company can do during a crisis or controversy is nothing at all. Every organization should have a plan in place and be primed for meaningful, responsible action. To begin developing and implementing an effective crisis communication plan, visit http://www.lasvegascrisiscommunications.com/ or call the MassMedia Healthcare Marketing crisis division at 702-433-4331.