[Special Edition] Komen Crumbles:
Busted Nonprofit Brand (Again)

Great news: Komen has restored its funding to Planned Parenthood.
Follow-up Update here

Susan G. Komen for the Cure (Komen) has struck out again. Komen has acted imperiously and (much worse) carelessly against the best interests of its core stakeholders—women who benefit from its support of breast cancer screening, treatment and research—to please its major donors and nurture its political connections.

In jettisoning its mission to improve women’s health, Komen opened up the door for the ready-to-roll Planned Parenthood (PP) to step in and mobilize the network of supporters it’s nurtured and energized over recent months, who then recruited their friends and families (instantaneously, via social media) into a movement to protect women’s right to good health care—all in two days!

Busted nonprofit brand, Komen, yet again. Komen busted their brand in partnering with Kentucky Fried Chicken (dig into my case study and follow-up article and you’ll see what I mean), next in suing other organizations with “cure” in their organizational or program names, and now this. Three strikes you’re out.

Here’s What Happened

Here’s how the story is evolving:

  • On January 31, 2012, the AP reported that Komen was stopping grants to Planned Parenthood. The grants were for breast screening for low-income women.
  • Komen rooted its decision in its new policy against grants to organizations under investigation. PP is under investigation in Congress. But the holes in this justification are huge. Here’s one: Komen is funding another organization under investigation—Penn State—to the tune of $7.5 million.
  • In an immediate response to this announcement, Planned Parenthood released a fundraising email to its network, which was already focused and energized by the extensive network-building PP has put in place over recent months. You can see PP’s email here.
  • PP’s Stand with Planned Parenthood network took it from there to kick start a broad, outraged but hugely-productive response that swamped Facebook and Twitter. Social media tools plus the timeliness inherent in website and blog publishing enabled this groundswell of response to scale instantaneously.
  • Meanwhile, radio silence from Komen. No proactive statement to take an active role in the conversation, no responses to the major news media, disappointed supporters or colleagues in the field. Nothing. (Update: Finally, 24 hours later, Komen released a guarded video featuring CEO Nancy Brinker. Brinker attempted to refocus the conversation on Komen’s care for women, but her stress on the organization’s trustworthiness and her caution to avoid dangerous distractions from the work at hand are laughable. She fanned, rather than diminished, the fire.)
  • Planned Parenthood and its network filled this silent space with information on what happened, the relevance of the key issue (the right to quality health care for all women) and what to do. Social media channels enabled the response (80-to-1 anti-Komen, pro-PP, according to Kivi Leroux Miller) to scale exponentially at a record-breaking rate.

Take a look at Kivi’s post for an overview of the conversation on social media and Beth Kanter’s online bulletin board of responses to Komen Can Kiss My Mammogram, the online fundraising campaign set up a.s.a.p. by Allison Fine.

How Komen Made Its Own Mess

“It is unconscionable that Komen would pull the healthcare rug out from under thousands of women who have no place to go but Planned Parenthood for breast exams and breast cancer-related treatment. It’s even more unconscionable that the winners of this decision are the corporate shills who will have that much more money to slap pink ribbons on yogurt in the name of breast cancer awareness.

“Mission accomplished, Komen. We are now aware of breast cancer. And now we are also aware that the Susan G Komen Foundation is more about bringing awareness to Susan G Komen and its corporate benefactors than it is about “Racing for a Cure”. Last I checked, a pink breast cancer awareness toaster isn’t a substitute for affordable screening and chemotherapy, ” says The Guardian’s Lizz Winstead. And I couldn’t say it better.

Then Komen made it even worse by staying silent for so long, declining even interviews from major media. In staying silent for so long (in the context of crisis communications),  they enabled PP to fill ears, eyes and minds,“ accidentally re-branded themselves as an anti-abortion organization,” according to Kivi Leroux Miller.

Komen’s failure to be honest, consistent and direct about the driver for the defunding undermines all their good work on women’s health issues, while staying out of the abortion issue morass.

What’s worse is that this behavior—refusing to be open, clear, direct and consistent about its decision making—is a pattern not a one off. Three strikes you’re out!

Komen underestimated the intelligence, focus and passion of its audiences, including those who love any woman anywhere. That’s lot of trust to lose.

Planned Parenthood Triumphs, and So Do Women

Planned Parenthood’s PR team, well-schooled in dealing with pushback, is clearly stomping all over Komen, who was not ready for the backlash its received. PP is headed to surpass the Komen grant dollars it lost, and has generated significant support and publicity as it fills the gap.  It looks likely that PP will be able to continue providing its breast cancer services. Let’s hope so

But that’s just the tip of this iceberg. Planned Parenthood’s triumph comes from its strengths. PP was (and is):

  • Ready and waiting: PP is experienced in crisis management and has mobilized a strong team of grassroots advocates ready to go.
  • Skilled in crisis management skills and tools: Crisis management 2012 necessitates social media focus, skills and network development. PP had all three in place which enabled the controversy to jump from a operational snafu to a national outrage within minutes.
  • Honest and real: PP sticks to its brand—putting women’s health first—now and forever. I trust them now, I’ve always trusted them and I bet I’ll trust them tomorrow.

I ‘m eager to see how this controversy plays out and will keep you updated.

Here’s more of Komen’s busted branding:

Busted Nonprofit Brand: Anatomy of a Corporate Sponsorship Meltdown (Case Study)

Guarding Your Nonprofit Brand and Guiding Your Marketing Partnerships: Principles to Follow

How would you advise Planned Parenthood to continue to build positive momentum, and Komen to repair its reputation? Please share your thoughts here.

Nancy Schwartz on February 2, 2012 in Branding and Messages | 16 comments
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  • Bobbie Lewis

    Excellent analysis as usual, Nancy! I will never support anything Komen again — no more contributioins for anyone racing for the cure, no more pink chatchkes! And I wrote out a donation to Plannned Parenthood as soon as I shared my outrage on Facebook — as did MANY of my friends! I think the only way Komen can make amends is by rescinding their cutoff, acknowledging that they acted rashly, and reaffirm that they support breast cancer screening and awareness programs by all sorts of organizations, even those with whom they might disagree on other issues.

  • mjfrombuffalo

    “Update—The latest is that Komen has finally “responded” with this video, which is a completed failure in terms of positioning them in a favorable light. In refusing to acknowledge the hotbed issue of abortion services (provided by PP) that is at the very core of their defunding, and neglecting to ”

    Um, that’s where it stops… there was more to that paragraph? PS love the analysis.

  • It’s an outrage that they’ll cut funding that obviously benefit’s poor people, but then want those same people to buy greasy buckets of cancer drumsticks that help fund their org… Whacked.

  • Beth Kanter

    Hi Nancy, thanks for mentioning the pinterest board, the correct link is: 

    I used the same visual to illustrate my post yesterday -and it caused some interesting comments:http://www.bethkanter.org/komen/ 

  • Sam Schulman

    Komen should never have made the grant in the first place. But given that Gallup reports that 51% of US women think abortion is “immoral” – therefore 51% of women with breast cancer, women at risk for breast cancer, potential donors (though of course prochoice skews upscale) etc. – wouldn’t you as a Komen fundraiser try any way you could to dissociate yourself from such a recognized pro-abortion brand?  

  • Tony Genovese

    Uh, no. Because if women’s health were my primary concern, I would be smart enough to know that money to PP is money well spent.

  • Debra Richmond

    The Hershey Medical Center grant that you mention above was a 5 year grant made before Komen changed their funding guidelines, and I believe before the Penn State scandal broke. This multi year grant, like the handful of multi year grants made to PP, is not being rescinded. They are being paid out as over the next few years as originally granted.

  • KDub

    Sam, no one is pro-abortion. I’m guessing you a) have never used PP’s services and b) don’t understand their full range of care.

  • KDub

    Sam, no one is pro-abortion. I’m guessing you a) have never used PP’s services and b) don’t understand their full range of care.

  • Thanks Nancy for this analysis. It’s been fascinating to watch from afar this utterly unnecessary fracas break out between nonprofits. A salutary tale too given that PP’s engagement and the rapid and creative response by so many people using social media tools has helped PP and damaged Komen’s reputation.

  • allgood2

    Women who believe abortion maybe immoral also includes women who may have had an abortion. People believe a lot of things, that don’t dictate their actions when they’re placed in decision making positions.

    But as others have said, Planned Parenthood is at its heart, a health center, with a focus on women’s health. People who support it are doing so because over 95% of its funding and services has nothing to do with abortion. It’s women’s health and a growing amount of low income families. They’ve always provided great care for low income women, but expanded to include some men’s health as well.

  • Janna Katz

    Check out the American Cancer Society’s Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walk at http://www.cancer.org/stridesonline

  • guest

    PP is acting like a bully.  Not a reputable organization!  
    Komen has the right to decide who will get and not get grant money from them. Contraception and abortion are both large risk factors in developing breast cancer.  So, Komen shouldn’t be aligned with PP anyway!  Now with their toddler tantrum like behavior they really should cut them off!!  Hope they never give another dime to them!

  • Drey

    My money and loyalty go the Planned Parenthood and American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association. The pink ribbon is over-used and now tainted – Komen choked itself with the ribbon.Women’s health and safety.
    How do I find out who funds Komen? on website or annual report?

  • Drey

     Thinking abortion is immoral and having one may be not be as contradictory as is alluded to. I know a number of women who have chosen abortion over the perceived longer lasting, insurmountable stresses of rearing a child/another child. Moral choice could be choosing to not parent.

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