On the chopping block again: Planned Parenthood steps up comms amid defund debate

"Defund Planned Parenthood" is a common rallying cry in Washington, DC, in the early months of the Trump administration. How the organization is fighting back.

With the clock ticking before Congress must pass a federal budget to avoid a government shutdown, Planned Parenthood is again in the spotlight as Republicans threaten to defund the women’s healthcare organization. The group is relying on its experience navigating years of crisis situations and the personal connections it has with women across the country to survive.

"Defund Planned Parenthood" has been a rallying cry for conservative politicians for years, including during the ongoing budget process. However, the landscape is different for the organization this time because Republicans hold both the White House and majorities and both houses of Congress.

This week, President Donald Trump signed a bill reversing an Obama-era rule meant to protect organizations such as Planned Parenthood from losing government funding because they provide abortion services. Iowa’s state legislature also passed a bill defunding Planned Parenthood this week.

The organization acknowledges it is taking a more defensive stance than it envisioned before Trump’s election.

"Overall, as an organization and communications team, we are not where we thought we would be six months ago in terms of what our goals are and where our focus is," says Elizabeth Clark, director of health media at the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. "The biggest shift for me has been instead of being able to think more offensively about what we want our communications work to do over next few months, it's definitely been more of a defensive frame."

Years of preparation
The organization has a strategy for fighting back in place, molded by sparring with political opposition for years. With the federal budget up in the air, the organization is focusing first on the consequences of defunding, zeroing in on constituents who would be affected, says Erica Sackin, director of political communications for Planned Parenthood. The organization is also organizing rallies at town halls and spreading information on social media.

Sackin explains the group is inviting politicians to visit clinics and teaching them about women’s healthcare.

"What we do is education," she explains. "We make sure that elected officials understand the importance of access to reproductive healthcare and the impact of having access to that care."

The group is also using messaging strategies that are defensive, with the goal of countering the opposition’s message, says Clark. For instance in 2015, it had to respond to altered undercover video that claimed the organization sold fetal tissue for profit.

"The two main things we do to push back are correcting misinformation and reminding people to check their sources," Clark explains. "That’s something unique to Planned Parenthood. I don’t know a lot of other nonprofits or healthcare providers that have an organized opposition, so that’s something we have to do whenever we're hit with false claims."

Opposition to the group is also well-organized. Groups such as the Susan B. Anthony List have started online petitions to urge members of Congress to pull government funding from the group.

"We expect to see Congress continue its efforts to redirect additional taxpayer funding away from Planned Parenthood through pro-life health-care reform after the spring recess," the organization’s president, Marjorie Dannenfelser, told The Washington Post after Trump signed a bill allowing states to defund Planned Parenthood on their own. Several other prominent groups, including National Right to Life, are also pushing to cut funding from the group.

Planned Parenthood provides sexual and reproductive healthcare, education, and outreach to nearly 5 million people every year, according to statistics on its website, as well as services to nearly 2.5 million people through its affiliate health centers in the U.S. The group has 56 affiliates and nearly 650 affiliate healthcare centers.

GCI Health CEO Wendy Lund says the group needs to be proactive in its communications and push out messaging about its values, even during a crisis. Most recent communications from the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the nonprofit advocacy side of the organization, have been defensive. Since Trump took office, the group has been rallying against his decisions, such as the appointment of Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court and the abandoned American Health Care Act.

"Planned Parenthood shouldn’t sound defensive," says Lund, who worked as VP of marketing for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America from 1992 to 1997. "They have support of millions and millions of people who want them to be successful. They need to trust in themselves as a brand, but get out there and talk proactively in support of women."

Focused on healthcare
Despite Planned Parenthood’s visibility as a political hot topic, most of its communications focus on providing healthcare. The organization’s comms team is split between political and health-related communications, Clark says. She describes it as a Venn diagram, with the overlap between political and health comms changing by the day or crisis.

"Planned Parenthood is incredibly effective at always leading with their primary focus, which is providing quality healthcare within communities," says Marissa Padilla, VP of public affairs at Global Strategy Group. "That is the most powerful message they have, and it is first and foremost in everything they're releasing."

Like many other healthcare organizations, its silver bullet is telling patient stories.

"These are people who are really dedicated to providing healthcare and the accessibility of it," says Elizabeth Toledo, president of Camino PR and a former comms VP at the organization. "There might be misperception that there is this political operation when, in fact, they’re only engaging in politics because they are providing these healthcare services."

The organization uses these women’s stories as both an endorsement of the work it does and as a shield from the opposition. The challenge is getting people to talk about their heath, yet during times of crisis, patients more readily relay their stories to support the group, she adds.

Testimonials such as these are more powerful than endorsements from celebrities or politicians, Lund says.

"There are so many advocates out there who support Planned Parenthood," she explains. "Not just politicians, but people at companies, people in the media, influencers, and people on social media. All those voices add up to something."

The goal of this communications—political, advocacy, and health—is to end the stigma about sexual health, which is at the root of the opposition to Planned Parenthood. It can also prevent women from getting the best healthcare.

"Planned Parenthood for a long time has been dealing with people who dislike or have an ideological problem with what we do and often have this campaign against us," Sackin says. "One of the reasons why you see Planned Parenthood come back over and over again from these really intense political attacks is because we have these grassroots supporters for whom Planned Parenthood is a beloved organization."

This story first appeared in PR Week.

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