Could the ongoing Komen PR crisis have been avoided? Yes, simply by taking a step back and THINKING before acting. Komen didn’t take the time to THINK the situation through, to examine their actions from beyond the insiders’ perspective, and so they didn’t anticipate the overpowering backlash against their decision that resulted. Instead of remaining focused on their reason for existing, preventing and curing breast cancer, they stepped into a highly charged, highly sensitive political arena that had absolutely nothing to do with the organization’s main mission. They allowed their personal political beliefs to take over the Komen mission. As a result, Komen has damaged its brand, its constituents, and its legacy.
For PR peeps like me, morbidly watching the ongoing trainwreck that is Susan G. Komen is both pathetically funny and sadly predictable. We watched the drama unfold, silently thanking our lucky stars that we weren’t in the shoes of Leslie Aun, Komen’s Vice President of Marketing & Communications. Like many of my colleagues, I engaged in armchair quarterbacking the situation on Twitter and other social media sites. This past Tuesday, I confidently predicted to my class of PR and advertising students the imminent resignation of Komen executive Karen Handel, a former Republican candidate for governor of Georgia who made the defunding of Planned Parenthood a key part of her campaign; she was the apparent driving force behind the action. I gave Handel three days, which turned out to be wildly generous – she was gone before I made it back to my office from class.
Komen’s move against Planned Parenthood last week not only caused an uproar among supporters who also back Planned Parenthood, it also roused those who, until then, had never been involved with either organization, the media, and the online world. Komen’s actions placed them squarely in the center of multiple issues: the role of politics in fundraising, the ethics of charities and nonprofits in political lobbying, the size of salaries paid to nonprofit executives, and more. Many of us learned for the first time of Komen’s aggressiveness in taking legal action against other charities over the use of the term “cure” or the color pink in their fundraising activities. We learned about Komen executives’ salaries and benefits, its ties with high-profile political conservatives and anti-abortion activists like Ari Fleischer and Komen’s advocacy arm board director, Jane Abraham, chair of the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony group, and other things about the organization that would never have surfaced otherwise. Komen’s actions placed themselves squarely in the harsh spotlight of the social media’s attention – an attention that may be more to be feared than that of the mainstream media. Anything and everything about Komen is now under scrutiny in a way it hasn’t been before, and will remain that way for years to come, simply because Komen forgot to think first before acting.
Many had accused Komen of initially bowing to political pressure from anti-abortion groups who want to cut off all funds to Planned Parenthood. The charity claimed that it had simply implementing a new policy to avoid funding organizations under investigation by authorities, which might have been defensible were it not for two things: 1) the “investigation” Komen based its decision on to cut the $680,000 from Planned Parenthood was launched by Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), an avowed opponent of Planned Parenthood, and 2) Komen’s continued funding Penn State’s Milton S. Hershey Medical Center to the tune of $7.5 million despite also being under investigation by local, state and federal investigations. The inconsistency underscored the preception that the new policy was merely a cover to target Planned Parenthood. It didn’t help that Komen insiders say Handel spent months pushing shift in the organization’s grant strategy.
In fact, the only grant cut under Komen’s new “policy” was Planned Parenthood. Can you say “target?” How about “hypocrisy?” Or “bully,” or “unfair,” or any number of other terms? In her resignation letter to Komen founder Nancy Brinker, Handel acknowledged her role in developing the strategy but denied it was based on political ideology, saying: “Our decision was the best one for Komen’s future and the women we serve.”
Ultimately, Komen brought this crisis on itself by a failure to THINK. The reason Komen has grown to dominate the fundraising landscape is that they didn’t just persuade people to donate, they INVOLVED their donors – they made them owners of the search for the cure, particularly women. And once that ownership was given, there was no taking it back. Komen failed to think through the situation and the consequences of their actions in making a decision without consulting the wishes of these “owners.” It never occurred to them to think about what the thousands of women who raised money for them would feel because of their actions.
There are two things that intrinsically define a woman to herself, and that is her hair and her breasts. Remove either of these, and you damage her perception of herself at a very fundamental level of what it means to be a woman. In essence, Komen’s actions turned on its “owners” at a level that threatened their fundamental selves – one reason the response was so immediate and visceral.
Abortion advocates said Handel’s departure appeared to be a short-term effort to staunch the public relations disaster and was unlikely to dispel lingering doubts about the organization given Komen’s ties with other high-profile political conservatives. Abortion foes claimed Komen caved in to pro-abortion liberals and the media.
Brinker called the controversy a learning experience the organization must learn from. It remains to be seen if they can learn to think first and act later.