Planned Parenthood’s Public Relations Problem


In 2006, I had a bit of a lucky break. Coming off of a bad run of underemployment and a housing market crash that ramped up just as I was getting my real estate license, I landed a job working for an elite crisis communications firm just outside of Washington, DC. The firm in question specialized in managing corporate PR around litigation in particular, but I was hired on to a new, special project tackling reputation management for a company with a massive image problem. But it wasn’t just any mom and pop operation. It was, at the time, one of the top three largest companies by revenue in the world – with annual earnings in the ballpark of $200 billion.

For an organization with a 10-figure advertising budget, our not-inexpensive consulting fees (which kept about 40 people employed, full or part time) were, by comparison, a drop in the bucket. For us, it was like landing the biggest of big fish – a contract significant enough that our firm had to lease additional office space, create a war room, bring on additional consultants, and hire new in-house staff to handle the workload.

As PR engagements go, there aren’t many that could top it.

I had a number of duties on the project, but I was, first and foremost, a media analyst. The most consistent and time-consuming portion of my job was to read the enormous volume of news written about our client and their operations and give daily briefings detailing how their story was being told in the media. Each day began with a conference call and in-house meeting, where I’d give my report to our staff of veteran ex-journalists, editors, politicos, lawyers, press secretaries, news anchors, and messaging experts. They would strategize and formulate responses to bad stories, or find ways to get more air time for those parties already in the media who were saying things we liked. Some of the people I worked with were on a first-name basis with former American presidents (or had been appointed to previous positions by them). Others would leave meetings at our office and hustle down to the White House to offer their advice to the sitting president. It was a high-level operation filled with people at the very top of their field.

I came quickly to realize that PR wasn’t my calling, but I learned an enormous amount about the profession, and I came to appreciate how much work goes into shaping the public image of high-profile individuals, companies, and organizations – almost all of it completely undetectable to the average person. The firm I worked for made a point of not advertising its work, but got all its business through word of mouth referrals and direct solicitation. They came highly recommended by various Fortune 500 executives (or their top legal counsel), but if I told you the name of the firm (I won’t), it’s very unlikely that you would have ever heard of it.

Good PR, you see, is invisible. And just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

Enter Planned Parenthood, which, experience tells me, is at this very moment the subject of an intense staff meeting in the offices of SDKKnickerbocker, the crisis communications firm hired to help them weather the storm caused by the undercover videos put out by the Center for Medical Progress, the latest (and most damning) of which was just released today. As I write this, I have no doubt in my mind that there is a group of highly-trained, highly-skilled consultants who are in the middle of a very long day. They are viewing that video piece by piece, working on talking points they hope will mitigate the damage, looking for stories favorable to their client, calling up sympathetic media contacts to ask for favors, prepping social media activities, and getting ready for the latest salvo of deflections and redirects. And to be perfectly honest with you, they seem to be doing their job effectively.

A normal organization couldn’t survive videos like these. To cut through the rhetoric, I’ll fall back on the old maxim: a picture is worth a thousand words. This is a screen capture I took from today’s undercover report on Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast. It offers more than a thousand:

baby hand

If you can’t make it out, that’s a tiny, perfectly-formed human hand. It’s being held up by a pair of tweezers, as clinic staff pick through the remains of one of the aborted babies from the day’s procedures for what they believe to be potential buyers, taking an inventory of organs in good enough condition for resale. The conversation about what they’re looking at is so chillingly-casual that it takes “the banality of evil” to a whole new level.

To give an example of how outrageous this is, imagine that some Red Cross doctors and executives were shown in undercover videos to be “euthanizing” undesirable human beings in the third world and subsequently trafficking in their organs as a cost-recouping side project of their overseas relief efforts. In the videos, as they stood over gurneys littered with dismembered, identifiable human remains, imagine that they laughed and spoke in clinical terms about the itemized parts, and the quality of their condition, all as they pawed through the bloody mess.

If this happened, there wouldn’t be anything else on the news for weeks.

The President of the United States would be forced to give a live speech, forcefully condemning their actions and promising an investigation. The UN and other international organizations would follow suit in the most severe terms. Foreign heads of state would involve themselves. Religious and humanitarian organizations. Celebrities. The world would be on fire with rage against the injustice of it. The inhumanity.

That is the appropriate reaction to something so horrifying.

But none of this applies to Planned Parenthood. As an organization that exists principally for the purpose of killing inconvenient children (and encouraging the kind of risky sexual behavior that inevitably leads to their conception), there’s only so far to fall. We’ve all already known and debated the sickening practices they’ve engaged in for decades. It’s as though we’ve been collectively anesthetized to precisely the sort of horrors that still come as a shock when we see them in the movies, or in videos released by ISIS.

The response to the videos from most everyone who was not already openly pro-life has been either awkward silence or open contempt. The White House, in a ghastly show of solidarity with their bloodthirsty friends at Planned Parenthood, has paid more attention to outrage over a small-time dentist who hunted an old lion in Africa than to a taxpayer-funded organization trafficking in human tissue and organs in flagrant violation of both the moral and civil law. Certain individuals and publications have issued (at times profanity-laden) denials that anything untoward is happening at Planned Parenthood, flatly accusing those who think so of being too stupid to know what they’re talking about. Most abortion advocates (including President Obama) have attempted craven deflections from the stomach-turning subject matter of the videos by crying “fraud” about the way the videos were obtained. A judge who issued a temporary restraining order last Friday against the Center For Medical Progress to stop them from releasing more videos was even revealed to be a six-figure fundraiser for President Obama. The deck is stacked. Which is why despite massive outcry, those in league with America’s largest abortion provider continue to insist that what’s happening in these videos is perfectly licit, “life-saving medical research.”

But if social media has made it possible for these videos to go viral among those who care, the larger populace should have no problem at all ignoring the story. Not long after Planned Parenthood hired SKDKnickerbocker to help them weather the storm, journalists and media outlets started receiving memos telling them that they shouldn’t cover the story at all.

Why would they listen? Isn’t it the job of the press to expose corruption like this?

Not really. Not anymore. The majority of individuals who work in the news media self-identify as liberal. This is a given. They have become, to the country’s detriment, the unofficial propaganda arm of leftist politics. But we also need to understand the incestuous nature of PR, the intermixing of politics and journalism, and the long-standing relationships that drive the industry. I mentioned that the people I worked with had reached a very elite status in the world. That wasn’t to elevate myself by association. One of the chief attributes that makes a person good at PR (beyond a nose for what kind of story will play well with the general public) is their contact list. If you don’t have strong media relationships, you don’t make it far in this business. I personally saw fellow employees call up primetime anchors and journalists that everyone in America would know by name. They had their personal cell phone numbers. They handed them stories and told them what they thought the highlights were. The people on the other end of the line listened, and often as not, respected and responded to what they were being told. Frequently, we got the coverage we asked for.

Look at the staff roster at SKDKnickerbocker. Who do you think Olivia Alair Dalton, former spokeswoman for Michelle Obama, knows? What about Josh Isay, who worked closely with Chuck Schumer, Michael Bloomberg, and President Barack Obama?  How about Bill Knapp, who knows the Clintons and the Obamas, and was also a producer at NBC News? And then there’s Anita Dunn, the former Communications Director for the Obama White House. How about Nell Callahan, whose bio was scrubbed of her work on behalf of Planned Parenthood “during the 2012 election cycle”? There’s quite a group over at SKDKnickerbocker, and each one of them brings invaluable experience and relationships to the table on behalf of their clients. Most are no doubt extremely talented professionals. Many of them have the journalists who serve Americans their news on speed dial.

But for every apparently faked hack on the Planned Parenthood website to garner sympathy and donations, for every deflection that this is about “life-saving medical research,” for every failed attempt to block Planned Parenthood’s half-billion dollars of federal funding in Congress, there will be the unforgettable exclamation, when sorting through a pile of baby parts, that it’s “another boy!” For every attempt to tell us that they do not traffic in baby parts, there will be the impossible to erase mental image of that hand.

baby hand

Planned Parenthood clinicians hold the severed arm of the poor child with tweezers. Cold, metallic, distant, brutal, fatal. It’s a demonic parody of what it should look like when a doctor comes into contact with a not-yet-born human child:


Or a common scene we all are so familiar with, which it unintentionally evokes:


You can’t make us unsee the hand, Planned Parenthood. You can’t message away the humanity of a child, SKDKnickerbocker. No matter how many third parties you trot out, no matter how many radio tours and op-eds you rack up, no matter how many appearances you book on the Sunday talk shows, no matter how many full page ads, no matter how many lunches you have with Hill staffers, no matter how many social media campaigns you drum up, no matter how much blogger outreach you do, no matter how finely-tuned your message discipline is, you can’t turn that pile of obviously human body parts into just some useless tissue.

Fingers. Toes. Lungs. Eyes. Arms. Legs. Hands. Bones. Hearts. If it wasn’t a person, it wouldn’t be worth anything. There is no flourishing market for “in-tact tumor specimens”.

The Nazis thought they would rule the world, and they believed their atrocities — which they defended, of course — ultimately wouldn’t matter in light of their grand designs for the human race.

You’re probably very good at what you do, SKDKnickerbocker. I should know. I used to work for one of the best firms in the business. But this is a no-win client. Even if the legal challenges fail, even if you “engage an army of brand advocates,” even if you “raise awareness,” even if you effectively close ranks and harden hearts and dodge the insightful questions and lock down message discipline and keep pimping your lies, you’re on the wrong side of this issue. Every single person on your team, down to the lowliest summer intern, should be made to take an all-expenses paid trip to Auschwitz and go on their unforgettable tour. Look at the hair. The shoes. The personal effects. The teeth. The expended canisters of Zyklon-B. The railroad tracks. The showers. The cells. The ovens.  The bunks. The barbed wire. The photographs of the people wasted away. The ground human bone that will forever bleach the soil of that fetid place.

The only PR message that remains from that living nightmare is the lie they told those they brought there to assuage their fear: “Arbeit Macht Frei.” And just as nobody ever worked their way out of Hitler’s death camps, nobody can ever work hard enough to make abortion anything less than the murder of an innocent child. No matter how many times you say it. No matter how much you believe the lie. Even if you cast it in iron above your hellish gates.

The Auschwitz tour should be mandatory because that is how history will remember you, and every single person that helped you cover for and further this most incomprehensible of human atrocities. Forever. And make no mistake: it will remember you. And you will be judged.

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