Health and science were in the news a lot in the past few weeks. And it wasn’t because of a new breakthrough treatment or a new research approach that could save the lives of millions. Those things happened, but they had a hard time cutting through the noise while several political stories emerged around topics involving women’s health that generated swift, intense debate and outrage through social media channels and highlighted the shortcomings of many to properly handle debates in the digital space.
The first explosive story started Jan. 31, the day the Susan G. Komen foundation did not renew a grant to Planned Parenthood to fund breast exams. Komen cited a new policy that it said prevents it from giving to any organization that is under investigation, while opponents of the move claimed that those involved were doing so strictly out of an opposition to abortion, which the Komen money has never funded.
I watched this story explode on Twitter, in real time, as people around the world were weighing in. What I didn’t see was any Twitter response on the @komenforthecure account until the next day. Within a week, top executives at the organization were gone, founder Nancy Brinker apologized, and the group said it will preserve Planned Parenthood’s eligibility for future grants.
Fast-forward a couple weeks. In Virginia, a bill that would have required women to undergo an invasive ultrasound before having an abortion failed largely for the same reasons that Komen’s move against Planned Parenthood did. After social media users helped fuel a backlash that ultimately resulted in a modification of the bill, the proponents of the bill found themselves forced to backtrack.
It’s not just those who oppose abortion who are finding themselves needing to brace for a debate. Researchers are finding themselves on the defensive more and more frequently.
Nina Fedoroff, the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, admitted to The Guardian that a growing anti-science movement now has her “scared to death.”
"We are sliding back into a dark era," she told The Guardian. "And there seems little we can do about it. I am profoundly depressed at just how difficult it has become merely to get a realistic conversation started on issues such as climate change or genetically modified organisms."
All of this raises questions for health marketers:
The speed with which the debate and the fallout happened with some of these stories was breathtaking. It reminded me of the value of things like preparation, creativity, clarity and responsiveness and how they can play a major role in helping healthcare and research organizations shape dialogue in their favor, or at the very least, help serve as a buffer to backlash.