Susan G. Komen for the Cure’s Response: What Marketing Genius Thought That Up?

Komen

We here at NPQ are big crisis communication watchers, so as the women of Komen central picked themselves up after being knocked over by populist waves of protest for their decision to discontinue funding cancer screenings at Planned Parenthood, we were curious to see how they would respond. We considered Susan G. Komen for the Cure masters of marketing but it seemed strangely unprepared. How could the organization’s communications department have missed the possibility of this backlash?

In a recent interview, Karen Handel, the embattled Komen vice president who recently resigned, said Komen was not prepared because they were under the impression that a “ladies’ agreement” was in place between the two organizations not to publicize the defunding. This explanation came with Handel’s assertion that Planned Parenthood was a “gigantic bully” that launched an “Armageddon on an organization for $680,000.”

But Komen’s attempt to pin a bully label on Planned Parenthood just falls flat, largely because Planned Parenthood—probably rightly calculating the self-propelled activism of its own base—was a master of understatement during the whole incident, an incredibly wise approach likely fine-tuned by decades of opposition and crisis communications. As any good communications person knows, when others are willing to stand up for you, you can say less and look very gracious throughout.

So was Handel scripted by anyone? Was the use of the bully language intentionally contrasted with the image of the ladies’ agreement? Either way, the response seems flat-footed. Komen sees all these women—many in their base—rising up to exercise their voices, and Handel tells them they have all been manipulated by a party they hardly heard from during the whole action. Handel and Komen are lucky that this Handel interview received surprisingly little play.

Instead, Nancy Brinker, Komen’s founder and CEO, has been holding our attention with her own media gaffes. Jay Rosen of Press Think deems her interview with Andrea Mitchell a train wreck that will be used as a case study in what not to do in an interview for years to come. Rosen suggests that Brinker was scripted to the extent that she had a few key concepts to emphasize but, by the time she gave the interview, her story had already been taken apart by journalists. He also suggests that she may have assumed that Mitchell’s own experience with breast cancer would make her an ally when there was every likelihood that exactly the opposite might be true. The result?

Says Rosen, “Shortly after the interview began, Mitchell threw her cards on the table. She identified herself as a survivor, as a supporter of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, as a friend to Brinker’s cause. In an extraordinary breach of norms that require a dispassionate pose from network television reporters, Mitchell also said she was ‘channeling’ the anger of women who simply could not believe the mess that Brinker and her board had made.”

From that inauspicious start, Brinker proceeded to state—disingenuously, as far as we’re concerned—that Komen does not do politics. But an article in The Atlantic had just reported (based on solid interviews with multiple sources) that the Komen move was made not to clean up the foundation’s administrative processes, as Brinker had claimed, but to edge Planned Parenthood out of its funding stream. Had she not been briefed about the article or the possibility of the information in it having been leaked ahead of time?

Rosen says, “The fractured syntax, the thoughts that do not connect, the zombie-like performance, the whole train wreck that this interview became: I think it all originates in a lie the house bought about itself. We don’t do politics. Miraculously, such a statement might have been true at one time. But when the board took the decision to cut off Planned Parenthood it ceased to be true. What if Susan G. Komen lied to itself about that fateful moment? What if the Foundation sent Nancy Brinker out there, not to explain its decision but to project that lie, no matter what?”

Brinker’s assertion that, “The responses we are getting are very, very favorable” lead Rosen to question whether she was “some kind of current events idiot.” This is, of course, hard to believe of women we considered marketing geniuses. But the fact is Komen may indeed have been a crisis communication idiot, not understanding the degree of scrutiny they might endure or the degree to which their statements would be analyzed and found to be less than completely truthful in a moment when media and popular attention was focused on them in an intense, critical way.

In an article in Slate, Rachel Larimore, who describes herself as skeptical about Komen but outright distrustful of Planned Parenthood, laments, “I wish that Komen had done a few things differently. I wish that it had come out right away and said that while it had to cut ties with Planned Parenthood, it had found a corresponding number of free clinics and gynecologists serving women in low-income areas to be the beneficiaries of its largesse. It would have illustrated that Komen was still committed to women’s health care.”

In short, the problem here was obviously in the integrity of the story told and in the end little in terms of explanations or inventive use of language would obfuscate that. As Kim Klein says quite simply in her excellent article “Mission, Message and Damage Control”(LINK), “If you see telling the truth as the only option, it limits what you can say. Don’t make something up or pretend something is true that is not.”

We’d love to know what you think. What are the lessons here? And before you take us to task for piling on to Komen, remember that we have often taken others to task for inadequate responses to scandal or crisis. We are equal opportunity in this regard.

About

Ruth McCambridge

Ruth is Editor in Chief of the Nonprofit Quarterly. Her background includes forty-five years of experience in nonprofits, primarily in organizations that mix grassroots community work with policy change. Beginning in the mid-1980s, Ruth spent a decade at the Boston Foundation, developing and implementing capacity building programs and advocating for grantmaking attention to constituent involvement.

  • Renee McGivern

    What is a ladies agreement? Another excuse for not taking responsibility for lying. I don’t use that term lightly. Like a country club with unwritten rules. “Oh, Rhett, how could we be so misunderstood? People are just so ungrateful.”

  • ruth

    Funny, that was exactly the kind of scene it brought to mind for me. The imagery!

  • Judy Levine

    As a board chair myself (and a nonprofit executive director who counsels many board/staff leadership teams), I have been thinking about how this is a very public example (among other things) of the board not doing its job. As a board chair, I am very aware of the important function of board members having “a nose for trouble” – to hear when the staff is so deeply embedded in implementation that they can’t sense the implications of their actions. It’s my job as a board member to channel the larger world and point out the potential consequences on more than simply the organization’s day-to-day work.

    Now it may be that Komen’s board, in this case, was in fact involved in this decision, and/or that because of the political ramifications it was a priority of theirs to defund PP. But to not get the fact that this would be a public relations disaster? To actually think, naively, that this could be left unspoken?

    I spent some time reflecting on this in my blog last week (http://www.causeeffectiveperspective.net/2012/02/nose-for-trouble.html)- and the lessons for all of us serving on boards.

  • Lori Marx-Rubiner

    I, too, was stunned by Komen’s marketing fiasco. I have never been a Komen fan, and the concerns that have reached the media of late are, for me, simply a glimpse into the myriad of Komen missteps that, in my opinion, stand in direct opposition to who and what Komen claims to be.

    I can’t imagine what Handel was thinking with her expectation that PPFA would maintain their so-called “ladies agreement.” What possible motivation would PPFA have for quashing this story? If nothing else, they still had to raise the funds to provide the MUCH NEEDED breast cancer screenings to their patients! The fact that PPFA did not race to the media is to their credit.

    This time, however, I think Komen has gone so far afield because they’ve been drinking their own Kool-Aid. They seem to naively and erroneously believe that they represent the voice of all women, even while fiercely ignoring the voices of their dissenters who have tried to speak with them.

    I’ll leave the balance of my rant on my own blog (http://www.regrounding.wordpress.com), and suffice to say I am grateful that truths about Komen are finally emerging on the public stage.

  • John

    I’m surprised Ruth didn’t use the image of a scarlet letter as the lead to her less than subtle dig at anyone “dumb” enough to assume a handshake agreement would be honored today – or was it that Komen took a pro-life stance?…

    It’s really disappointing considering most of the articles in NPQ are quite inspirational – but I guess this kind of tabloid journalism is creeping in everywhere. Rather than point out how deftly Planned Parenthood was able to take on the martyr role and shift the attention away from the core issue of why a Foundation that sponsors medical research to save lives, probably shouldn’t be funding an organization that spends it’s time helping to prevent life from happening, and in some cases, prematurely ends life for the greater good.

    Karen Handel made the mistake of putting transparency first, and no amount of PR weasel-speak about “mission, message and damage control” changes the fact that this article trounces that notion of clarity as stupid, naive, unprofessional.

    Ruth then seeks to further disparage the Foundation as “liars” because they (Komen) said this was not political. The premise for your argument is what? Jay Rosen’s stance that anyone who disagrees on funding Planned Parenthood must be political? Why can’t they just be saying that their donor base would prefer their dollars spent on disease research and translational science?

    Ruth, you’re wrong.

    Sometimes in life, you do what is right and it results in a short-term loss of brand equity; but this same bold act can also reinforce the connection between your most loyal stakeholders and donors.

    Sometimes honesty is it’s own reward.

  • David Warlick

    John, as one with no skin in this game but with four kids and just one wife, I understand the “lie” to be that Komen was dropping all grantees under investigation, when in fact it dropped only one such organization (Planned Parenthood). The other “lie”, and here I speak as an accountant, is good governance: Komen files its taxes late, it packs almost all its management expenses under “programs”, it pays large salaries, and it has a lot of people on its payroll with the same last name as its founder.

  • Lori Marx-Rubiner

    [quote name=”John”]
    Karen Handel made the mistake of putting transparency first, and no amount of PR weasel-speak about “mission, message and damage control” changes the fact that this article trounces that notion of clarity as stupid, naive, unprofessional.[/quote]

    I’m a bit confused…how did Handel put transparency first in her stated expectation that PPFA would maintain the secrecy of the SKG decision to defund. Wouldn’t “transparency first” have meant that SKG would have, themselves, announced what they claim to be an apolitical policy change. If the goal of the initial defunding decision was to course correct and keep SKG on mission, would they not have hailed their own efforts? SKG sought secrecy…perhaps because they have what to hide?

  • Mary K Richardson

    John, in your response, you show how political this decision was: “It’s really disappointing considering most of the articles in NPQ are quite inspirational – but I guess this kind of tabloid journalism is creeping in everywhere. Rather than point out how deftly Planned Parenthood was able to take on the martyr role and shift the attention away from the core issue of why a Foundation that sponsors medical research to save lives, probably shouldn’t be funding an organization that spends it’s time helping to prevent life from happening, and in some cases, prematurely ends life for the greater good.”

    The issue is screening for breast cancer. If Koman makes it’s decision on any other grounds, it is lying when it tries to spin a different truth. Better for the organization to state their objection, and look for funding with those who agree with their political stance.
    ANd, we do not know the role of the Board in all of this. That would be another interesting article, indeed.

  • Dr. Kathleen T. Ruddy

    I think Brinker should produce a heartfelt apology that includes accepting responsibility for the mistakes that were made, and then she should step aside and allow new leadership to take the helm. Komen should divest itself of all corporate sponsorships and rely only on donations to fund its work. They should immediately declare that 100% of all donations will be used to fund research and cover their overhead with the monies at hand, which are more than sufficient to carry them forward for many years. They should also diversify their funding strategies, spending 30% on understanding the causes of breast cancer and working for primary prevention of the disease. Brinker, who is wealthy, can return to the foundation after a reasonable absence, and provide her services as a non-paid advocate for Komen’s mission.

  • BGM

    Would love to see the link (indicated in what is likely an editorial note) for the article mentioned: Mission, Message and Damage Control.

  • Kelly Rosenleaf

    Great analysis! I followed the story (all over my personal facebook page, many links to interviews, articles, etc.) and wondered how any organization that proported to be concerned about women’s health, specifically breast cancer, could be so ignorant about the full range of services offered by Planned Parenthood, and the tremendous reach the organization has via its current and former constituents.

    The public believed that Komen was about breast cancer research, early detection and treatment. However, now the public is fully informed that Komen also has an anti-abortion agenda. Komen has now alienated a very large group of potential donors who are concerned about breast cancer and who are also pro-choice.

    Not political? Hardly. Everything about health care access, research funding, priorities for service .. . is political. Since when has abortion not been a political issue in the US? That defense is completely disengenuous.