It has been fascinating over the past few months to watch the leadership of two iconic American organizations, with previously sterling reputations, seemingly degrade their brands to their core audiences. I am talking about the Penn State University Board of Trustees and leadership of The Susan G. Komen for the Cure organization. We all know why both of them have been in the news recently. While they are very different circumstances, there seem to be some similarities between what they have done and how they have handled their respective situations. In addition to these brands both having an extremely loyal following, I found two other similarities particularly interesting.
The first similarity is that these organizations seem to have taken actions that, at the very least, have turned a very vocal portion of their core audiences against them. In Penn State’s case, they upset a portion of their alumni base by firing Joe Paterno, the method in which they did it, and how they have handled the entire Sandusky situation. In Komen’s case, by de-funding Planned Parenthood, they alienated a substantial portion of their support base who also supports Planned Parenthood. Both organizations seem to have taken action influenced by outside pressures without regard for what effect it would have on their core audiences.
The second similarity is the lack of targeted, honest communication to those portions of their audiences regarding the actions they have taken. They both had ample time to prepare a communication strategy. The Penn State Board of Trustees had months to prepare for their oncoming trouble, and I would assume the Komen foundation had control over when they made the decision they made. Neither prepared their audiences leading up the actions they took, then completely failed to properly message to them to them once the actions were complete. The poor communication continues even now in the case of the PSU Board, leading their audience (and the public at large) to form their own opinions based on the commentary of those people who actually are speaking about their circumstance. The leadership of Komen has just apparently reconsidered their decision, opting to listen to the audience they alienated just a few days ago. The need for this possible reversal could have been avoided had they been aware of, and placed priority on, knowing how their decision would ultimately affect their core audience in the first place.
These situations could lead one to wonder what is more important: staying true to your core audience, or doing what you believe you need to do to cater to outside forces? Personally, I believe knowing your audience and making sure they are always your first priority should guide any organization on handling these types of priority decisions. These two complex cases cause one to examine how these organizations found themselves where they are. There really are only a few possibilities in a strategic sense. Some of them are:
1. They felt the outside pressure and possible effects were more important than the effect their actions would have on their brand with their audience
2. They didn’t consider their audiences at all and decided based solely on the outside factors (or internal preferences that guided their decision)
3. They mis-read either who their audience is, or what those people expected out of the brand to which they have been loyal
Only the people in those leadership positions have the information to articulate which of the above either organization fell in to (or others not listed, known only to them). In any case, both organizations took actions that have altered their brand to a portion of their core audiences without an obvious communication strategy to help manage that brand distortion. One has apparently begun taking steps in an attempt to repair that damage.
The lesson that has certainly been reinforced is that organizations need to understand who their audiences are, and do everything they can to stay true to what that audience expects. Without understanding what those expectations are, making a commitment to staying true to them, and consciously working to follow through on that commitment, even the most iconic and reputable brands can sustain considerable damage in the eyes of their most loyal supporters.