I often say that good communications is not an effective remedy for bad policy. When trouble hits, everyone suddenly needs “communications help.” But communications can only change perception if you’ve fixed the underlying problem. Case in point: the Susan G. Komen Foundation.
I remember when the Susan G. Komen Foundation came on the scene. It was early on in my PR career, and every client I had wanted to partner with them – almost as fervently as they wanted to be on Oprah. Soon we had pink everything – from KitchenAid mixers to diamond necklaces – all supporting breast cancer research. And the Komen Foundation became the Xerox, QTip or Kleenex of breast cancer. Heck, the NFL had a pink out. The Komen Foundation and the pink ribbon became the gold standard for every health advocacy group out there. Until today.
Unless you’ve been shut off from the world the past few days, you know that the Komen Foundation will no longer be funding mammograms and other cancer detection services through Planned Parenthood. I learned about it the same way you probably did – on Facebook. And if social media is a good indication, this one isn’t going to just pass over. The Komen Foundation has quickly become Public Enemy No. 1 for women everywhere, and put the debate over coverage of contraceptives on the back burner. Commentary ranges from statements about the power and influence of right leaning politics to suggestions that the foundation itself has lost its way in a sea of pink licensing and promotional deals.
The Komen folks point to a new policy that prohibits them from funding, but a recent story highlights the departure of a top executive as a result of that policy, and several inside sources who paint a picture of duplicity – a public Komen advocating for women, while privately scheming to cut off Planned Parenthood in a nod to conservative politics who’ve made sport of villain-izing Planned Parenthood. What inevitably follows is the question of Komen’s trustworthiness, and where the money goes. How much of the millions they raise through walks, endorsement, licensing and product sales really goes to cancer research, and with what kind of results?
The pundits will surely be lining up to talk about the importance of crisis communications. And yes, good crisis communications will be key to the very existence of the Komen Foundation. But this isn’t a communications problem – this is a policy problem. In an apparent nod to conservative politics, the Susan G. Komen foundation manufactured a new policy in order to sever ties with Planned Parenthood. The Komen Foundation seemingly forgot, or miscalculated, the priorities of its passionate advocates and supporters. Good communications, even great communications, can’t fix bad policy or bad decisions. The Susan G. Komen Foundation needs to make good decisions first, then communicate.
The Pink Scandal: Who are the winners and losers in the Komen Foundation Reputation Debacle?
Planned Parenthood – who may get some reprieve from being the poster child for abortion and re-cast for what they are – a provider of women’s health services – and one that heavily serves poor and uninsured women — a population of women who often have few options for healthcare.
Former Komen Exec Mollie Williams – who got out of dodge before things got ugly and has handled media inquiries with dignity and grace.
Serendipitous Beneficiary – The American Cancer Society – long respected for their work to combat the dreaded “C” word – they have the opportunity to “take back” breast cancer as their own, and mobilize support from the people who still want to fight cancer, but don’t want to support the Komen Foundation.
No surprises here – The Susan G. Komen Foundation, and the research that may see a decline in funding if support for their efforts dwindles. You have to question whether ceasing a $600,000 grant – a drop in the bucket for both organizations – was worth the reputational damage.
Women – Millions of uninsured and low income women who rely on Planned Parenthood for their healthcare needs, including cancer screenings.
The employees of Susan G. Komen Foundation – When the sex abuse scandals of the Catholic Church were on the front page, a priest friend told me he was ashamed to wear his collar in public for the first time in his life. I would imagine that many of the employees at the Foundation work there because they passionately believe in this cause. Overnight, they’ve gone form walking tall and proud because they work for the gold standard to defending themselves and their employer.
Collateral Damage – The color pink is no longer the new black; but the pink ribbon may be the new Scarlet Letter. Pinkwashing is the new greenwashing.