The Cautionary Tale Of The Komen Foundation


What a week for the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation, which raises money for the treatment and prevention of breast cancer. Not only did its strategists make a hugely unpopular decision to defund its long-time partner and grantee, Planned Parenthood, which provides breast cancer screenings for largely low-income women on Komen’s behalf, they appear to have been caught completely flat-footed in PR maelstrom that followed.

Now, they’ve apologized, reversed their decision and are doing the mea culpa circuit.

But the damage has been done on so many levels, not the least of which is the organization’s hard-won SEO and glowing brand associations. And Komen’s missteps offer a cautionary tale for all brands, nonprofit and for-profit alike.

Soon after announcing a new policy that had the effect of eliminating Planned Parenthood as a grantee, many of Komen’s affiliates around the country denounced the controversial decision by their parent organization.  A group of powerful and influential U.S. Senators signed a letter demanding the organization reverse its decision. The Twittersphere, blogosphere and punditocracy lit up like a Roman candle, expressing dumbfounded outrage at the decision. And the mainstream press coverage showed the organization, which claimed repeatedly to be non-political, to be anything but.  Most impressive was the popular outrage from average, everyday people, most especially the tens of thousands of women who have participated in or supported one of Komen’s ubiquitous Race for the Cure walkathons.



Internet culture guru Peter Hirshberg had this to say in a Facebook posting last Friday morning before news of Komen’s reversal was made public:

Two weeks ago internet activism killed SOPA. Today online protests swamp the Susan G Komen foundation and leaving their founder looking like she had no idea what just hit her. (Much as MPAA’s Chris Dodd did last week.) These are pretty responsive political feed-back loops fueled by social media. They suggest that citizen voices really are resonating more powerfully than before. It’s pretty empowering to find that what you say really does have impact, something the Arab world discovered about a year ago.

What’s truly amazing about this whole awful affair is that up until last week, Komen had shown itself to be a savvy marketing and communications organization. It managed to merchandize and popularize the pink ribbon in ways the AIDS community never achieved with its red-ribbon effort. Its business development and co-marketing deals are the envy of most for-profit organizations. And it’s managed to activate and mobilize many thousands of women and their supporters across the country to raise money and join in the walks, raking in hundreds of millions of dollars over many years as a result.

It takes a truly sophisticated and talented marketing organization to make success of this magnitude possible.  Which is why the scope of this self-inflicted PR disaster is so astonishing. How could such an organization so woefully misjudge its audience and community of supporters? How could an organization so deft at connecting with and mobilizing a particular market segment have developed such a tin ear to that market’s values and concerns?

For Komen, which says it is a nonpolitical organization but appeared to be making a highly political policy decision, this story was clearly not going to go away. The very base Komen excited and activated over the years had begun to conclude that the organization might not conform with their values or beliefs.  Any company or organization seeking to earn the loyalty and support of their customers must express and then really live the organization’s values and mission.  Ironically, Susan G. Komen for the Cure seemed to be saying, “We don’t walk our talk.”

Now that Komen has reversed its decision and will continue to fund Planned Parenthood as it has in the past, it will have a huge effort ahead of it to repair the damage, which could prove lasting. Beyond just the PR consequences, its SEO has got to be badly damaged (do a search on Komen and all you get are nasty, nasty headlines and social media comments). And the faith and trust it has so carefully built with its customer base is, at a minimum, badly shaken.

Only by reasserting its mission and values, and then really walking that talk, can it hope to repair the damage.

At any rate, the cautionary tale couldn’t be clearer: Violate your own values and brand promises at your own peril. The highly social and networked community in which we all live is very quick to react, and the punishment for violating their trust will be harsh every time.


1 comment about "The Cautionary Tale Of The Komen Foundation".
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  1. Brian Kleisner from Thomson Reuters, February 6, 2012 at 1:56 p.m.

    The foundation not only destroyed their reputation in search. My e-mail box is littered with businesses pulling their support including one of my favorite restaurants in NYC which went as far as to say, "even though we are happy that Komen has reversed their controversial decision, we have decided to amend the event... on February 7, and not make the Susan B. Komen Foundation a beneficiary of the evening. We will continue with the informal scotch tasting, free of charge, and Valentine's Day Jewelry Fashion Show and Sale. We will be serving our daily menu for dinner and forgo the prix-fixe menu previously advertised."

    The damage will take an extraordinary effort to repair especially when you have small businesses lining up to withdraw support. Politics has infected far too many of these decisions. Marketers need to be part of the conversation and asked what, if any, risk there may be to organizational reputation.

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