Saturday, February 4, 2012

Musings on Susan G. Komen and Planned Parenthood

By almost any measure the recent Susan G Komen affair is an amazing story.
Here are some of my musings.

To start with, Susan G. Komen for the Cure stands on its own as an exhibition of the primacy, power, and pathology of the branding process in modern culture.  In a near-perfect articulation of the marketer's art, the gaudy pink of the SGK brand infiltrated our daily lives in a manner that has been, if you'll pardon the expression, virtually metastatic.  Within the last few years a few suspicious grumblings about the wisdom, value, or even good intent of this unchecked march have percolated into the public consciousness, and a few instances of their market penetration have smacked of the bizarre (all that pink clashing with NFL team colors anyone?).   The thought nagged that, as with many brands, their relentless presence was becoming its own purpose.  Still, their momentum seemed unstoppable, their aura saintly, their position secure.

Their case also illustrates the how the complementary imperative of protecting the brand works on the institutional psychology of corporations, and often not to the good.  Charlie Pierce spoke wonderfully to the force of this drive in a recent article about Penn State's handling of the child rape case, replying to any who would wonder "How Penn State could have let such evil stay hidden?" with... It happens because institutions lie. And today, our major institutions lie because of a culture in which loyalty to "the company," and protection of "the brand" — that noxious business-school shibboleth that turns employees into brainlocked elements of sales and marketing campaigns — trumps conventional morality, traditional ethics, civil liberties, and even adherence to the rule of law. It is better to protect "the brand" than it is to protect free speech, the right to privacy, or even to protect children.
The point here is not that SGK lied or covered up anything.  In that respect the stories differ. What they have in common is how once a brand gets to be a certain size, the drive of its leadership and its loyal following to protect it can border on manic paranoia.  The larger and more established the branded institution, the more relentlessly protective they become.  It is this fact about institutions, more than any other, that sits at the heart of Komen's Planned Parenthood debacle.

While it is difficult to pull the exact reality out of the storm of reports and editorials, a reasonable summary of the affair goes something like this.  A failed right wing anti-abortion gubernatorial candidate from Georgia, Karen Handel, was hired as a Senior Vice President of Communications at SGK.  Whatever else she did to serve the SGK cause, it appears she also came packaged as a classic Trojan Horse hiding a clandestine plan to get SGK to take a public whack at Planned Parenthood.  The plan was not one of honest persuasion of the SGK leadership, but rather by a disingenuous political maneuver.  A policy was introduced under which SGK would refuse to fund organizations under government investigation.  The masking rationale for the policy was protecting the SGK brand from involvement with controversy (a genuine part of Handel's purview).  The true rationale was to tie SGKs hands later when Senator Cliff Stearns called for a federal audit of Planned Parenthood, forcing SGK to execute the policy, and terminate its funding for PP's cancer screening programs in low income areas.  While the financial impact of the termination was negligible compared with PP's overall budget, the expected political payoff was a different story.  They could clobber Planned Parenthood politically as having been found unworthy by the large publicly sanctified and beloved Komen organization.  It was planned as a hit and run PR coup for the movement, and a feather in the caps of those who pulled it off.

At first, on the surface, this looked like a political black-op of  almost Mephistophelean cunning, especially the playing of SGK's large institutional paranoia for its brand to set up the attack and then set the pieces in motion.  Then almost overnight it all went marvelously, horribly, wrong.   Instead of getting their free-hit on and subsequent public ridicule of Planned Parenthood, they instigated a virtual mob to rise up and overwhelm SGK stripping it of its public sanctity, and wrecking a sizable portion of if its brand image, and in all likelihood diminishing its revenue generating power for the immediate future.  Even worse, the political and financial fallout for Planned Parenthood was all positive, with compensating donations flooding in, including $250,000 dollars in matching funds from Michael Bloomberg.  When your own party's closest approximation to Vladimir Putin pays your actual target a quarter of a million dollars in reparations, your political theater piece has gone from a John LeCarre intrigue to a Peter Sellers' farce in world record time.

There are only three speculations possible about how to view the role of SGK leadership in all this.  Either they were fairly duped by clever people after the manner of Bernie Madoff's victims, or they were not-very-bright rubes that never should have fallen for it,  or they fully understood what was happening and thought they were going to be OK.  In all but the first case, they can probably be held culpable for what they actually brought on themselves.  If you grant the validity of the need to protect your enterprise from the effects of controversy when your enterprise isn't controversial, it seems obvious you have to two basic strategies for deciding who you work with.  One is to be controversy blind and work with anyone willing to work with you toward the common goal.  Disease eradication efforts by NGO's work this strategy all the time.  They take the strict line "We're here about the disease and getting rid of it.  Whatever grievances lie behind your local internecine squabbles, we're only here to make sure that when you resolve them the disease will be gone too.  Whaddya say?"  The second possible strategy is to be controversy avoidant, and limit yourself to only the most vanilla, of non-controversial partners.  Here the line is "Don't call us until you work out your problems.  We don't want any trouble."   The scope of a controversy blind enterprise is potentially larger by virtue of unlimited collaboration than that of a controversy averse enterprise.   However if you adopt the first strategy, you have to stick with it.  You can't be the slightest bit fickle about your commitment to unaligned benevolence.  It will be hard enough to get people to take it seriously when its consistently true.  If you give the slightest hint of preference you're lost.  The natives will bury you.  This I think is what happened to Susan G. Komen this week, and if the leadership was fully aware of what they were doing, then they can be reasonably seen as incompetent rather than innocent.

In the meantime, SGK has recanted its decision, recommitted itself to funding PP's breast cancer programs, but many of the angered have expressed unwillingness to let bygones be bygones.  That may even be the best thing for the overall public good.  An aura of sanctity rarely disposes individuals or institutions to behave at their best,  and SGK may be better off without it.   Also, if there is any merit to the criticism that they were overgrown and had become big simply for the sake of being big, then the backlash will have been a tonic, possibly even curative.  Mostly though, it is reasonable to wonder whether the entire Susan G. Komen for the Cure enterprise is a quixotic venture.  Its important to compare them with the organization from which they drew their cachet--the national effort to eradicate polio or The March of Dimes. There's something essentially misleading about the comparison this invites us to make.  The effort to eradicate polio was vastly different from the ambition to cure breast cancer. At the time of the of the Mother's March there were ... things we knew for certain that made it rational to think the effort would succeed.  First we knew polio was a virus, Second we knew that it was the kind of virus to which humans developed permanent immunity after infection.  Third, since Jenner and Pasteur, we knew the fundamental theory of vaccination.  Infect the subject with enough of something identical to the virus that doesn't give them the disease and let the body do the rest.  This was hard knowledge, not hopeful speculation.  We didn't have to figure out what would eradicate polio, we already knew.  We just didn't know how to make it.  Figuring out how to make it, and then scaling that up to a safe and reliable industrial process, then verifying product safety and efficacy in the population, was the whole purpose of the March of Dimes.  Since the only real question was how soon we would have it and since we wanted it as soon as possible, the law of diminishing return on investment was a moot point.  By contrast there is no such foundation underlying the efforts of Susan G. Komen for the Cure.  The research they support by nature operates on the boundary of diminishing returns, and factoring in the opportunity costs the value of throwing more funding at Breast Cancer research is a serious issue.  Which is all another way of saying that a smaller Susan G. Komen might be a better one.  And if it means those ghastly pink football shoes go away too, no one will be happier than me.