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Crisis Communication Lessons from Planned Parenthood

Anatomy of Strong Crisis Communication: What Planned Parenthood Did Right

  • Prepared – It already had a crisis communication plan in place that it could tailor and put into action quickly; it recognized more attacks were coming and prepared its supporters to brace themselves.
  • Decisive – It responded quickly (with the facts in hand) and decisively through written and digital channels (email, video, Twitter).
  • Empathetic – PPFA’s response struck the right tone. It was strong and did not concede wrongdoing but acknowledged that the optics weren’t optimal.
  • Engaging – Planned Parenthood’s supporters are passionate and ready to act – through Twitter, blog posts, emails to Congress, etc. The group used the power of personal stories to connect with people on the issue.
  • Connected – PPFA prioritizes building and maintaining strong ties with allies and decision makers willing to stand in support of the organization

Planned Parenthood has had a rough few weeks.

To recap, an anti-choice organization called the Center for Medical Progress (CMP), a fake corporate entity, captured undercover videos of Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) executives allegedly discussing the sale of fetal tissue. Actors posing as buyers from a fictional medical company met with a PPFA official while hidden cameras rolled. CMP then sliced and diced three hours of footage to create an eight-minute clip that makes it appear as though Planned Parenthood was acting nefariously. CMP’s main purpose is to put Planned Parenthood out of business.

Will it work? Absolutely not.

Planned Parenthood was (more than) ready for the attack. It had to be. As the largest abortion provider in the United States, it regularly fends off zealous opposition who use low-down, dirty tactics to try to shutter the nation’s largest provider of reproductive health services for women.

The organization clearly has a crisis communication plan at the ready that it can tailor for specific situations. When the CMP story hit, Planned Parenthood’s rapid response team immediately took action, offering a smart case study in how to deal effectively with a crisis.

CMP released its first video on July 14, 2015, at 8:00 a.m. (Yes, first; there have been two at this point and CMP promised more to come.) Less than 12 hours later, Planned Parenthood issued a strong, decisive response (via video and written statement) calling out CMP as a bogus group. In the statement, PPFA pivoted back to its core messaging about its role as the nation’s leading provider and advocate of high-quality affordable health care. The statement also recognized that the tenor of Planned Parenthood executive Dr. Deborah Nucatola (who was drinking wine and eating a salad while discussing fetal tissue during the lunch meeting with CMP actors she believed were medical buyers) could appear callous.

Cecile Richards, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood, apologized for Dr. Nucatola’s tone. In a crisis, you must not only acknowledge the hard facts (the video was a sham), but also the emotions (regardless of the facts, it doesn’t look so good to sip Merlot, nibble on a salad, and discuss fetal tissue). PPFA did both.

Like sharks, the media smelled blood in the water and pounced on the story. Planned Parenthood’s rapid response team sprang into action to make sure that press had all of the facts about the video and background on CMP. Because of the team’s quick action, columns in publications such as The Washington Post, Cosmopolitan, and The Los Angeles Times called the video what it was – a fraud.

Liberal media watchdog Media Matters quickly discredited CMP’s video with a tweet that same day. Progressive media outlets such as Mother Jones and Think Progress posted articles calling the video a “Nothingburger.” RH Reality Check released an infographic called A Network of Lies: The Anti-Choice Radicals and Congressional Leaders Manufacturing Attacks on Planned Parenthood.

And while conservatives used the video as an opportunity to grand stand against abortion, Planned Parenthood activated its vast network of supporters to post to Facebook, tweet, and send letters to Congress. The organization repeatedly reached out to its activists to ensure they heard its message, sending six emails and tweeting 65 times over the two weeks following the video release.

Allied organizations including EMILY’s List, the National Partnership for Women and Families, and NARAL sent action alerts to their members in support of Planned Parenthood. A group of 92 organizations – including women’s rights, labor, LGBT, religious, civil and human rights – sent a letter to House and Senate leadership saying, “They stand with Planned Parenthood Federation of America during this time of vicious political attack.”

Planned Parenthood supporters blew up the twittersphere over the controversy. More than 27,000 tweets used the hashtag #StandwithPP, including celebrity supporters Lena Dunham, Jamie Lee Curtis, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Dan Savage, as well as political supporters such as Sen. Chuck Schumer, Sen. Patty Murray, and Hillary Clinton.

While opposition continues to roil on the right, PPFA’s supporters on the Hill were gathering steam, with four members of the House of Representatives calling on the Attorney General to investigate CMP. White House spokesperson Josh Ernest spoke in support of PPFA from the briefing room.

Planned Parenthood also tapped the power of the personal story. Two days after the video first surfaced, it released Linda N.’s story (via Twitter and its website) about a woman who decided to try to save lives through tissue donation after an abortion.

So far, Planned Parenthood has done everything right during this crisis. It may be bruised and battered (as I write this, Congress may vote – yet again – on a bill to defund the organization), and it has certainly spent far more time, energy, and resources dealing with this issue than it would have liked, but my bet is that PPFA comes out largely unscathed.

Planned Parenthood expects it hasn’t heard the last from CMP. But with a strong crisis communication plan in place, and allies and supporters standing ready, it is prepared for the next attack and others that are sure to follow.

Beth Kanter is a Senior Vice President at Spitfire Strategies. She was the former Senior Vice President of External Affairs for Planned Parenthood of Illinois. To download an infographic of this post, click here.

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