Komen, caught up in the culture wars, nurses damaged brand

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Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation CEO Nancy Brinker
Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation CEO Nancy Brinker
Cowed by a fierce and lighting-quick backlash fueled by angry Tweets and Facebook posts, The Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation issued an apologetic statement on its plan to pull funding for breast cancer screening through Planned Parenthood, less than 72 hours after it was first announced. But the breast cancer charity's credibility was hurt by shifting rationales and accounts of its decision-making process that were at odds with those of internal critics. As a result, a previously unassailable brand in healthcare fundraising may have sustained some permanent damage, say experts in crisis PR and corporate reputation.

The story broke late Tuesday, with a statement from Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards pronouncing the group “alarmed and saddened that the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation appears to have succumbed to political pressure” by pulling funding for breast cancer screening. Within the day, dozens of US Senators had signed on to a statement castigating the charity, which has built a $400 million fundraising operation in large measure through its roster of blue chip corporate sponsors including Merck Consumer Care and Walgreens, among other healthcare companies.

Komen's CEO and policy chief, both of whom have ties to the Republican Party and the anti-abortion movement, gave seemingly conflicting accounts of why they were pulling the funding – that they were doing so because of a fishy congressional investigation spearheaded by an anti-abortion Republican committee head, or because Planned Parenthood didn't provide direct screening at many locations but rather issued referrals. Pro-choice advocates howled. New York's mayor, independent Michael Bloomberg, pledged $250,000 in matching funds to Planned Parenthood. Several top execs left the group and a number of local affiliates protested the move.

Today, the group seemed to back down as CEO Nancy Brinker issued a statement apologizing “for recent decisions that cast doubt upon our commitment to our mission of saving women's lives” and vowing to “amend the criteria to make clear that disqualifying investigations must be criminal and conclusive in nature and not political.” But is the damage already done?

“They do have some questions to answer,” says Ame Wadler, managing director at Zeno Group. “If you're not delivering a consistent message, it does raise doubts, and I agree with Mayor Bloomberg's comment that health should not be politicized, but women's health is often politicized. They need to depoliticize this as soon as possible.”

Sponsors and partners, said Wadler, “should be having conversations about whether their mission has shifted in some way. If it has, maybe now is the time to reevaluate that relationship.”

Lee Lynch, EVP and group head of Edelman Alliances, said Komen's move “was such a highly visible and seemingly off-character one for the foundation that before investing future dollars, companies may be inclined to have serious conversations with Komen to understand specifically why they did this and what other actions they may be considering in the future. It may have raised the question in people's minds as to the political leanings of the organization.”

The group has such a deep wellspring of good works to draw on that they may be able to repair the damage, said Lynch, if they quickly defuse the notion that their actions were political and organize external voices to help remind people of their legacy. They might also consider, say, funding other, smaller groups that provide screening services to low-income women.

The fracas also reveals “a chink in their armor relating to their digital and social media capabilities and capacity,” said Lynch—one which many groups doubtless share.

Planned Parenthood did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this article.

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