PR Lessons From Mother Jones For Corporate and Nonprofit Boards From the Komen Foundation Experience

By Steve Lubetkin, Managing Partner, Lubetkin Global Communications

One of the biggest lessons coming out of the Komen Foundation’s recent high profile policy and communications failures is the importance to corporations and organizations of having some voices of dissent in their circle of advisers.

A major problem of our technologically flat world is that we have the ability to tune out voices that we don’t agree with more easily than ever before.

If we are conservative, we can watch Fox News and not worry about hearing a liberal point of view.

If we are liberal, we might read The New York Times and never look at The Washington Times.

This is a mistake. You need to be listening to voices that don’t agree with you. For example, boards across the country should be reading and discussing every article in Mother Jones magazine about their industry.

This well-known publication happens to do some of the best investigative reporting around today, and offers insights into the social and political issues that your organization will need to deal with in the coming months and years, whether you like it or not.

Unfortunately, most business people would recoil from the thought of even looking at Mother Jones, because of its rich political history as a publication of the far left liberal wing of American politics — but you’d better look at the MoJo article, "What Would It Take to Trust Komen Again?"

The article, by MoJo co-editor Clara Jeffery, does a brilliant job of dissecting the Komen Foundation’s insular and single-minded board of directors.

She does a careful job of distinguishing between the many Komen advisory and volunteer boards around the country. She is talking about the wealthy, conservative core of close friends and family members that Nancy Brinker has surrounded herself with. They think alike, they send their children to the same elite private schools, they raise money for the same conservative GOP candidates.

They are, to put it bluntly, a lot like corporate boards — and other nonprofits — all around the country. People like to be friends with people like themselves, and they like to have those people around as advisers.

Boards like the Komen board, which are elitist and insular in their thinking, almost never take good advice from their communications counselors. Let’s be honest. We can blame the PR department for a screw-up here, and maybe they had something to do with it.

But I will bet you that the PR department tried to tell the Komen board what the possible outcomes were from their policy change, and that information was suppressed.In a big corporation — and that’s what Komen is, after all — there are many simple ways to keep information from getting to the board.

Either they made the presentation to someone in management below the board level who decided it wasn’t "important enough" to bother the board with, or they did bring it to the board, which just all clucked their tongues and just patted the PR people on the head, thinking, "we are so much higher than you, we know so much better how things work, now go back to your office and send out more press releases about our pink merchandise."

The problem is, such an incestuous board becomes an "amen corner" for what they think. They don’t get real outside opinions. They usually either demote, fire or push aside anyone who gives them contrary advice, or heaven forefend, bad news. Ask anyone who took bad news about Bank of America to Ken Lewis what happened to them. It doesn’t take long for the troops to get the message that the best way to survive is to keep your mouth shut and don’t tell the boss.

On 60 Minutes, Leslie Stahl did a profile of Admiral Mike Mullen, the recently retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He recalled that when he got his first star as a Rear Admiral, he received a note of congratulations from one of his Annapolis classmates that read, "Congratulations, from this day on, you will always eat well and never be told the truth again."

Boards will always eat well, but they need to create an environment in which they can be told the truth — and the messengers will not be muzzled or fired or telling the truth.

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