[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 in Branding and Messages | 16 comments
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