Every morning before leaving the house, Betty Cockrum makes sure she is camera-ready. For the average CEO this is an unnecessary precaution, but as the president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky, last-minute media appearances are a frequent occurrence. Cockrum has been interviewed for HBO, Vice, Rolling Stone, the Daily Show, and countless other news outlets to defend Planned Parenthood’s mission as the organization finds itself at the center of a divisive political issue that is threatening its federal funding.
Cockrum recently took time out of her busy schedule to discuss her approach to PR with the Puget Sound chapter of PRSA. She shared what it’s like to constantly play defense as Congress members and grassroots groups alike publicly oppose Planned Parenthood and how she leverages the constant stream of incoming media requests to clarify misconceptions and shift the conversation back to the organization’s core mission.
A Defensive Approach
Cockrum and her team do not have much time to think about offensive PR strategies. Instead, they leverage the steady stream of incoming media requests to ensure Planned Parenthood’s messaging is part of the media conversation around women’s reproductive health.
This also allows Cockrum to educate the public on Planned Parenthood’s core mission: providing reproductive health care to women. Planned Parenthood has become associated with the pro-choice/pro-life debate, and as a result many people have lost sight of the fact that its services extend far beyond providing abortions. In reality, abortions only comprise about 3 percent of Planned Parenthood’s services and no federal funding is spent on abortion services. Continuing to educate the public about the broad range of health care services Planned Parenthood provides to 2.5 million women – from cancer screenings, to contraception, to general health care services like flu vaccines – is now more critical than ever as Planned Parenthood faces losing its federal funding.
With Planned Parenthood’s government funding at risk, private donations are incredibly important. Positive media interviews can lead to a bump in donations. When Cockrum appeared on the The Rachel Maddow Show, she says Planned Parenthood received close to $30,000 in donations the day after the show aired. Planned Parenthood has also seen an uptick in donations since the election: the organization has received more than 400,000 donations from across the country.
Fighting Political Jargon with Logical Facts
In today’s age of alternative facts, an unprecedented amount of misleading information is being spread by politicians, grassroots organizations and media. The “war of words,” as Cockrum calls it, is especially fierce around women’s reproductive health. Cockrum’s strategy is to fight political jargon with logical facts. For example, when politicians and reporters use the term “chemical abortion,” Cockrum corrects them, explaining that the medically correct term is “medical abortion.”
However, once something is in print Cockrum rarely asks for a correction because she feels this draws more attention to the mistake. Instead, she works to educate reporters so they understand why political jargon is misleading and the importance of using neutral, medically accurate language.
Dealing with Crisis
As the spokesperson for an organization that is at the center of a deeply divisive political issue, Cockrum has extensive experience with crisis communications. In fact, she says for the past six months she has been living in damage-control mode. Her advice for others dealing with crisis communications is to address the issue as early as possible, and if your organization has made a mistake, always give the appropriate audience a sincere apology. Once the crisis starts to calm down, take a critical look at what went wrong and how you’ll do things differently moving forward to prevent it from happening again.
Cockrum has been leading Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky for 15 years, and she plans to retire in June. During her tenure, she has grown a thick skin against criticism. In an interview with the Indy Star she said, “With every passing encounter that’s unpleasant, you get a little more stoic about it, you grow a little more skin. But when it’s all said and done, you come back to truth. And truth is, we do good stuff, and we make a real difference in real people’s lives every single day.”
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