Cowed by a fierce and lighting-quick backlash fueled by angry Tweets and Facebook posts, The Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation last month backed off from its plan to pull funding for breast-cancer screening through Planned Parenthood, less than 72 hours after the plan was announced. But the 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 on a Tuesday in early February, 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 such healthcare companies as Merck Consumer Care and Walgreens.
Komen's CEO and policy chief, both with 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 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, 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.
By Friday of that week, the group seemed to back down as CEO Nancy Brinker issued an apology “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 was 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.”
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.”
The group has such a wellspring of good works to draw on that they may repair the damage, said Lynch, if they defuse the notion that their actions were political and organize external voices to help remind people of their legacy. They might also consider funding other, smaller groups that offer 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 likely share.