Komen tries to restore its credibility

People walk down Main Street in Bangor during the 15th annual Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in Bangor in 2011. More than 5,000 people participated in the event that raises money for breast cancer research.
People walk down Main Street in Bangor during the 15th annual Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in Bangor in 2011. More than 5,000 people participated in the event that raises money for breast cancer research.
Posted Feb. 05, 2012, at 8:15 a.m.

The nation’s leading breast cancer advocacy group has gone into full damage-control mode.

Executives of the embattled Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation held conference calls with affiliates Saturday to discuss a new strategy for working with supporters, a first step in rebuilding trust after last week’s public relations fiasco surrounding Komen’s off-then-on-again decision to fund Planned Parenthood.

Founder Nancy Brinker and President Elizabeth Thompson talked to executives from Komen affiliates across the country about ways to apologize to supporters and about what needs to be done next, according to a Komen official.

The overall tone was positive, but there were “lots of tough and candid questions” from executive directors and local board members, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal communications.

Robin Prothro, executive director of Komen Maryland, said national leaders told affiliates that “we’re on track; this is what we’re doing.”

Maria Williamson, president of the Komen affiliate in Virginia’s Tidewater region, said Brinker spoke of her “deep concern” about the community backlash and the onslaught of media inquiries that deluged Komen offices last week.

Williamson likened the reaction in her office to a Category 5 hurricane. But, she said, “a really good brand can withstand a big hurricane.”

The foundation reversed course Friday after the overwhelming public reaction to news on Tuesday that Komen was no longer going to fund Planned Parenthood’s breast cancer screening because of a congressional investigation into whether the group was using federal money to pay for abortions. Planned Parenthood is now eligible to apply for grants, Komen said.

Now Komen executives are faced with the task of restoring credibility to one of the strongest brands in the nonprofit world.

Brendan Daly, an executive vice president at Ogilvy public relations, confirmed that Komen had sought Ogilvy’s help last week. Brinker told affiliates Saturday that they would also be getting help on crisis communications from Ari Fleischer, a former White House press secretary in the George W. Bush administration. Neither consultant was involved in the funding decision.

“People may now question the role political ideology plays in their decision-making, and that didn’t enter into people’s minds in the past,” said Lee Lynch, who heads health-care advocacy and does crisis management for Edelman Communications. “So they’re going to have to deal with that perception.”

Some corporate sponsors are reviewing their partnerships. Komen affiliates have already lost donations and Race for the Cure sponsorships. In New York, the Tocqueville Restaurant emailed a “note of concern” Saturday to patrons, notifying them that it was no longer donating proceeds to Komen from a special dinner Tuesday because of “the recent events.”

Honest Tea, the Bethesda, Md.-based company that began partnering with Komen two years ago, is pausing to rethink its options. It donated $100,000 to Komen last year. While the amount is small compared with donations from other large corporations, Komen is one of Honest Tea’s largest partnerships with a nonprofit group, said company president Seth Goldman.

The company wants to support breast cancer awareness and research, he said. He’s just not sure Komen is the best recipient.

“I’m encouraged that they’ve restored [Planned Parenthood] funding,” he said. “But it’s unsettling to think you’re supporting one thing and then it changes.” It was particularly unsettling, he said, for him to learn the news by reading it in the newspaper.

Public relations experts say Komen needs to be much more transparent with supporters and donors in the weeks ahead about how it works and who gets money.

“If they don’t fund Planned Parenthood, they are going to be criticized,” and if they do provide grants, they are also going to be criticized, said Joann Rodgers, who once handled media and communications for Johns Hopkins Medicine, which put in place stronger protections after the death of a clinical trial volunteer in 2001.

Komen also needs to better explain its message and “not let others frame the story,” she said.

The poor communication had the biggest impact for a core group of supporters who care about breast cancer and not about the politics of abortion, said Komen board member John Raffaelli. During last week’s roller coaster, these supporters were frustrated that the organization was letting “the left grab one leg and the right grab the other leg, and it would rip us apart,” he said.

By contrast, Planned Parenthood mobilized public opinion almost immediately.

Moments after the Associated Press reported the news late Tuesday that Komen was barring the organization from receiving funds, Planned Parenthood blasted news releases via email and Twitter and posted the information on Planned Parenthood’s Facebook wall.

On Facebook, Planned Parenthood has added more than 32,000 new fans since Tuesday, spokesman Tait Sye said.

In response to the Komen decision, Planned Parenthood had a simple strategy for Facebook and Twitter. “We gave people things to do,” Sye said. The organization sent out suggestions to donate, sign an online petition, tweet about the issue and post a Planned Parenthood badge on Facebook.

“All of it,” he said, “is meant to reinforce the idea of showing public support.”

By contrast, Komen was caught off guard by the rush of developments.

It was clear to Laura Farmer Sherman, executive director of the Komen affiliate in San Diego, that national leaders did not have a strategy to manage the crisis.

“They would be the first to admit they’re a grass-roots organization, they don’t have gorilla PR legions,” she said. “I think that’s one of the lessons learned. … Most of these people are public-health workers. What do they know from standing in front of the camera. … We need to sharpen up our tool kits.”

Staff writer N.C. Aizenman and researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.

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