A Big Stumble in the Race for the Cure

By | February 3, 2012

Some NGOs court controversy and engage in political theater to promote their causes and fill their coffers.  Until this week, the Susan G. Komen Foundation, the leading breast cancer charity, was mostly known for pink ribbons, hot pink adorned athletes, their Races for the Cure across America and efforts to promote breast cancer screening and finding and battling the disease.   All that changed with the announcement of the organization’s decision to cut funding to Planned Parenthood.  The news unleashed a torrent of opposition to Komen from cyberspace to Capitol Hill and has proved a monetary god send for the beleaguered Planned Parenthood.

Though the drama continues to play out (Komen announced a reversal of its decision today), it is already having a devastating impact on the reputation of Komen, with organization executives resigning in protest, women throughout the country cutting up their pink ribbons and Komenwear, calls for boycotts and politicians racing toward microphones to opine on the decision.  In time, we will be able to gauge the effect on Komen’s standing and the multi-millions it raises each year but the organization’s early stumbles in terms of communications cloud its future.

From a crisis communications aspect, an organization needs to war game the potential public reaction for any controversial announcement (and first appreciate what in fact will be controversial) and be prepared for potential reactions among all its stakeholders.  This can help decide what and how to communicate.  For an otherwise incredibly savvy- marketing Komen, there seems to have been a serious lack of planning here or appreciation of the impact of the news.

The initial rationale for the decision that was floated tied the defunding to new criteria which barred grants to organizations under investigation.  For Planned Parenthood, this was a seemingly politically motivated investigation by a conservative Republican Congressman. Thus, Komen was catapulted into the center of an election year scrum amidst passionate politicos of all stripes.  With social media already hyper-buzzing, Komen added even more fuel to the flames with a poorly scripted and stiffly delivered defense of its action on its Facebook page.

As the controversy took over the airwaves and digital media (with Planned Parenthood reaping the benefits of the media onslaught and a rush of new contributions), Komen committed perhaps an even bigger communications gaffe.  It changed its story. Yesterday, Komen founder Nancy Brinker, grimly and combatively did the cable TV circuit, to offer a new rational for the funding cut and equivocate a bit on what the decision meant to future grants for Planned Parenthood.  The reason du jour was now Komen’s desire to support groups that directly provide breast health services and that Planned Parenthood only provided referrals.


This fire fight is far from over but it is already offering lessons in what not to do from a crisis communications perspective.  We will keep watching to see how Komen plays it from here and how it will ultimately impact its reputation.

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