7 PR Lessons Komen for the Cure Didn’t Know It Was Giving You

February 3rd, 2012 | Shonali Burke | 107 Comments

someecards.com - Thank you for cutting off funding to cancer screening programs in order to prove that you are pro-life.

Update at 11:40 am ET: Since this post was published, Komen has restored funding to Planned Parenthood, which you can read via this statement they released today. Special thanks to Jen Zingsheim for noting in the comments that she learned this via Jezebel, which is how I found out.

I’ve been fascinated by the way the Komen drama – over its new grant policies resulting in withdrawing funds for most of the Planned Parenthood programs that were formerly recipients – has been unfolding.

Kind of like watching a train wreck, isn’t it? That’s what it feels like to me, at least.

Before we go any further: I do care about women’s health (I have my own issues that I deal with every day), and have donated to Komen by supporting friends who’ve participated in their walks, but not directly. I have friends who’ve survived breast cancer (among other cancers). I briefly met Nancy Brinker some years ago, when I was a “scrub” on a client event, and the American Institute for Cancer Research is a former client.

But I’ve never bought into Komen’s “pink ribbon” deal, because its Goliath-like domination of the cause marketing world, not to mention the month of October, made me want to root for the underdog.

The first post I read was a couple of days ago, by Kivi Leroux Miller, on what she called the “accidental rebranding of Komen for the Cure.” Kivi has been keeping the post updated, and if you haven’t yet read it, I suggest you do. She says,

“This post is about what happens when a leading nonprofit jumps into a highly controversial area of public debate without a communications strategy, stays silent, and therefore lets others take over the public dialogue, perhaps permanently redefining the organization and its brand. Watch and learn, so you don’t make the same mistake on whatever hot button issues your organization might be wading into.”

Some of the other commentary/reporting/activity that has stayed with me:

Yesterday, Bill Sledzik also took a look at how this might change the way cause marketing is approached.

Beth Kanter, who got me involved in the Komen Kan Kiss My Mammogram! cause that Allison Fine created, set up and then invited me to join her Pinterest board of the same name, as an exercise in “Pinactivism.” In her post, Beth also touched on “newsjacking” and Komen’s ham-handed handling of the issue thus far, though it seems someone at their Communication team has finally been woken up (or fired-and-hired).

Beth Kanter's Pinterest board on Komen/Planned Parenthood

Nancy Schwartz has been writing a series on Komen’s “busted brand.” And Joe Waters wrote a terrific rant on why “Komen sucks… but so do you.

There’s no point in my rehashing what some very smart people have already said, but I will say this:

1. Transparency is everything

Yesterday, I tried to give Komen the benefit of the doubt. I thought, “Let’s assume that all this is indeed the result of new granting rules.” So I went onto their website (couldn’t even load the blog, still can’t), to read what those policies were, and what they are. After all, surely they’d be on the site, right?

Nope. At least, I haven’t been able to find them, and I spent a lot of time looking.

Finally, I clicked through to some of their affiliate sites, and there they were. But why isn’t there at least an overview of their old and new grant policies on the main site?

Had Komen posted this when its board voted to do this, as the New York Times reported, at least they would have had their own point of view on record before they had to resort – late – to the video response from Nancy Brinker.

2. Staying on message doesn’t help if you don’t address what people really want to know

In all their statements, Twitter responses (again, late), and so on, Komen has tried to reiterate that their decision is not about politics, and that they are staying true to their mission.

Komen on Twitter

That’s all well and good, but what people really want to know is why Planned Parenthood has been singled out; yesterday Mother Jones reported that Penn State appears to be in violation of Komen’s new grant policy.

If Komen had been upfront earlier – on its website – with exactly what this new policy is, then it might douse some of the flames. Note, I said “might.” But now, by digging their heels into the sand, all that’s happening is that we (at least, most of us) are taking their position with a huge sack of salt.

3. Walk the talk

The NYT article I referenced earlier quotes a Komen board member:

“The organization’s longtime support of Planned Parenthood had already cost it some support from anti-abortion forces, Mr. Raffaelli said. But the board feared that charges that Komen supported organizations under federal investigation for financial improprieties could take a further and unacceptable toll on donations, he said. ‘People don’t understand that a Congressional investigation doesn’t necessarily mean a problem of substance,’ Mr. Raffaelli said. ‘When people read about it in places like Texarkana, Tex., where I’m from, it sounds really bad.’ “

So what is this really about, then? Is it about staying true to its mission, as Brinker has repeatedly tried to say, or is it about assuaging those for whom it “sounds really bad”… and not losing significant donor dollars in the process?

And if, according to one of Komen’s own board members, “a Congressional investigation doesn’t necessarily mean a problem of substance,” why not try to educate those who might not understand this, instead of throwing a single – as seems to be the case – organization under the bus?

4. Punxsutawney Phil or not, prediction is part of the job

Yesterday, Dan Cohen published a terrific guest post here on WUL riffing off of Groundhog Day, where he made the point that “communication is more about mastery than about prediction.”

Yes. But, as I noted in my comment on the post, that mastery also means that we develop the ability to anticipate how our publics are going to react and, therefore, plan and act accordingly.

I don’t know who runs Komen’s communications, but boy, have they been asleep on the job. Especially given how acrimonious conversations around Planned Parenthood can get, how could they not have anticipated what would happen… and prepared for it?

Perhaps they did, and were shot down by senior leadership… I don’t know. But whatever happened or, rather, didn’t happen, I’m left with the impression that Komen was so convinced of its own invincibility, thanks to its ocean of pink ribbons, that it simply never assumed people would take it to task.

Did you see Andrea Mitchell grill Brinker on MSNBC (Kivi linked to it in her post as well)?

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Note how Sen. Boxer says, “to change the story is not going to work.” That’s exactly what I mean in #2 above. Brinker stuck stubbornly to her point, and to me it was pretty sad that only at the end of the interview did she acknowledge “communication issues.”

I don’t know if the furor would have not have raged as high had there been some forethought put into how Komen would communicate the new policy. But at least they would have had a shot at shaping the public dialog. No matter what happens hereon out, this is one battle they’ve lost.

5. If your affiliates are distancing themselves from you, you need to worry

When I couldn’t find anything about the Komen grant policies on its main site, I clicked through to a couple of its affiliate sites, as I said.

And while I found the policies there, what really struck me was the lengths Komen Maryland went to to distance itself from the national organization’s policy:

“The new granting criteria announced by Susan G. Komen for the Cure® that now makes Planned Parenthood ineligible for funding was a decision made on the national level. Many of the Komen and Planned Parenthood partnerships that began in 2005 provide women in remote areas with access to breast health services. To date, Komen Maryland has not received a grant application from Planned Parenthood requesting financial assistance.”

Several of the other affiliate sites don’t have as current statements (or any), but if you look at their Facebook pages, you can see how they are trying very hard to reassure their fans that they weren’t part of this decision-making process while trying to toe the party line.

Komen Connecticut:

Komen CT on new national grant policy

Komen Charlotte:

Komen Charlotte on the new national grants policy

Komen Northern Nevada:

Komen Northern Nevada on new national grants policy

Several of the other affiliates are toeing the party line, but when your chapters are trying to convince their stakeholders that even though they’re you, they’re not really you, you have a problem.

6. Pull your head out of the sand and reply

This point has been made over and over and over again. And yes, I will say it too: replying to your audiences, inquiries, even attacks, is not an option. Today, conversation is the norm.

Komen was exceedingly late out of the gate in its responses. It’s been roundly criticized for that, as it should be, and yesterday, when I couldn’t find information on their grants on the main site, I wrote into the “media” email address, asking for a link. I still haven’t received it.

Perhaps as a tiny blogger I didn’t warrant attention from the media department. The problem is that no matter how tiny we are, we’re all connected in some way, shape or form, to people who might listen to us. And if enough of us make a noise, that can cause problems… and you might get “newsjacked,” as Beth mentions in her post.

Planned Parenthood, on the other hand, gets that. It walked all over Komen with the way it went straight to the people, generating not just media and public attention, but more support and donations.

7. What goes online doesn’t stay in Vegas

One thread of the still-unfolding story is that Komen’s new policy has been driven in large part by its SVP for Public Policy, a former Georgia gubernatorial candidate who has been vocal about the fact that she doesn’t support Planned Parenthood (see the Atlantic story that ran yesterday).

Brinker and others have denied this with the “it’s not about politics” line.

But the problem is that Karen Handel, the SVP in question, seems to have been a little too click-happy in retweeting this:

Karen Handel's retweet

Once you’ve seen this, does it really matter what Ms. Brinker, Mr. Raffaelli (as quoted in the NYT) or anyone else at Komen says about the new policy not being politically motivated?

I searched for the tweet in Ms. Handel’s profile, but couldn’t find it, so I assume she deleted it. However, thanks to @WentRogue‘s Twitpic, there is now a permanent record of it.

What goes online doesn’t stay in Vegas.

I told you at the outset of this post

that I’ve always viewed Komen’s marketing machine with some skepticism. That does not take away from the fact that I believe there are many, many well-intentioned, sincere people working at the organization, and that regardless of how they’ve done it, they’ve brought huge awareness to the issue of breast cancer.

It makes me sad that they are probably feeling really upset right now, and fighting their own internal battles because of the ham-handed way this issue has been managed. Or, I should say, mismanaged.

And it makes mes sad to see how crushed the men and women who have supported Komen are.

Is Komen going anywhere? Probably not. Will Planned Parenthood find a way to cultivate the groundswell of supporters it has gained in the last couple of days? I hope so.

But regardless of the organizations involved, and the politics that may or may not be involved, I hope you will remember that breast cancer is a big issue, and find a way to talk about and support efforts to cure it.

I also hope that if you work for or with a non-profit organization, you’ll use this post, those I’ve referenced and what I’m sure will be many more to run, to put together your own crisis communication plan well before you need it.

And oh! I have my first mammogram next Friday. Wish me luck, won’t you?

At almost 2,000 words, I’ve certainly had my say! What’s yours? I’d love to know. And many thanks to several non-profit/social media friends who shared links online that helped me put this post together.

Shonali Burke
Head honcho of Waxing UnLyrical, Shonali Burke is President & CEO of Shonali Burke Consulting, Inc. Based in the Washington, D.C., area, she loves helping for- and non-profit clients, both small and large, turn corporate codswallop into community cool™. She also loves ABBA, bacon, cooking, dogs, and Elvis. Wouldn't you like to be in her kitchen?
Shonali Burke
Shonali Burke
Shonali Burke

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Henry Dunbar
Henry Dunbar

Great wrap, Shonali, but I don't think it's over yet. One paragraph statements isn't going to cut it and now with Karen Handel gone, there will be more questions.

As fas as in-house comm professionals, the SKG website lists Leslie Aun as Vice President, Marketing and Communications, but she's waaaay down the leadership list. She was formerly at World Wildlife Fund. Someone in the DC nonprofit Comm-o-sphere must know her. Let me know when she's scheduled to speak some where in a few months. Says she was also an adjunct professor at Georgetown.

My guess is what ever advice she had to give was completely steamrolled by Brinker, Handel and co., who had to be calling the shots by that point. I saw that gritted-teeth interview she gave to Andrea Mitchell and thanked my lucky stars that I wasn't on the SGK Comm staff trying to talk sense to execs who don't want to hear it.

Here's the release from last April (ironically, the same month Handel was hired): http://ww5.komen.org/KomenNewsArticle.aspx?id=6442453125


Well written and really I couldn't agree more, that being said, good luck on Friday!!


What a great post Shonali. It's a synopsis many can use in reviewing this situation which I fear we'll be doing it for years to come. I have always had such tremendous respect for both these organizations. Unfortunately for many of the reasons you cited above, I no longer trust Komen. And, it will likely take them some time to regain my trust, if they ever can. That's unfortunate because they have done such good work. But, a consumer's trust is a precious commodity and once broken is difficult to repair.

I share @jenzings 's concern as well that the "reversed course" isn't really reversed. After being involved in the political process in the last election cycle, I've seen the passion of the far right and know how absolutely committed to their causes they are. Unfortunately they seem to have infiltrated this wonderfully non-political organization. It will take tremendous effort to remove them and I certainly don't see it happening right now.

In the meantime, we need to support nonprofits who believe in healthcare for women. We need to do our research to make sure we're supporting those who deserve our support and stay committed to the cause. So many things about this week have been interesting and this is one that seems to keep on giving.

Happy weekend to all.


I think we all need to be a bit careful on the "reversed course" assumption. Their statement is more nuanced than that. The "reversal" is that they will no longer apply the "institutions under investigation" as a disqualifying factor. They've changed the language in the rule to read that any organization that is involved in a "criminal and complete" investigation is not qualified. So PP can still apply for grants, but they are by no means guaranteed to continue to have those grants approved.

Furthermore, Komen has been steadily halting grants to research institutions that do work on stem cell lines--to a much, much larger dollar amount. http://jezebel.com/5881996/komen-halted-funding-for-12-million-in-stem-cell-research-like-we-wouldnt-notice

I think the die has been cast here. I know it has for me--I won't ever look at this foundation the same way again. They appear--especially in light of the "pink handgun" branding--to be appealing to a very specific Mama Grizzly audience, which is far more narrow a set than their traditional base.


Well done, great article. Now that Komen has apologized and reversed course, will be interesting to see how they get these donors/supporters back. A wealth of lessons learned for any cause that has to deal with public backlash (we'll be reading about this in Comms books within a year, I'm sure).

Kate Lee
Kate Lee

Great work, Shonali! And don't worry about next week - it's about 15 minutes out of a whole year.

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

Damn @Shonali all this in 4 minutes scribbled on a napkin during lunch and sent to the printer?

This was amazing and what I find funny is the board member trying to say they get more money from Texarkana than NY or Los Angeles.

I took blog shots at Yoplait for the pink lid campaign being disingenuous. That many people forget to mail them back. It creates material waste (envelopes etc), green house gases (transportation), people costs (processing the lids) vs just having that money go to the fund.

This takes the cake though.


Really appreciate the close look you've given this situation here, Shonali. Another lesson I've learned is that people on both sides of a highly emotional debate will skew facts/figures to suit their point of view. I find this funny (not funny ha-ha), because I believe most people would continue to feel just as strongly (on both sides) with the *truth.*

PR pros (and the media) have an ethical obligation to put the facts in plain view, and then you can explain them in ways that support your cause. As you wisely note, Komen should have been more transparent about what it was doing -- the perception that they were saying one thing and doing another is a credibility problem they may not be able to reverse.

Shonali moderator

@mdbarber Sorry I didn't reply earlier, but you know I was busy cooking all weekend. :) Yes, @jenzings makes a really good point, and I really liked your post on smart giving as well, Mary. Thank you for stopping by when you have so much going on, my friend!

Shonali moderator

@jenzings You're right, Jen. I'm curious... was PP ever guaranteed to be approved for grants?

As far as the pink handgun goes, I saw it earlier too. Then a friend shared this with me: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/03/susan-g-komen-planned-parenthood-handgun_n_1252448.html - Komen says there is no such partnership. I guess it came at a time when the furor was so great almost anything seemed believable.

It is going to be very interesting to see what happens in the days, weeks and months ahead...

Shonali moderator

@GarthMoore Thanks! I know it's been added to my students' reading list as we speak...

Shonali moderator

I saw that. I'd love to see the film, but I don't know when it will come to the US.

Shonali moderator

@HowieG Yea, on a napkin during lunch, and I was applying nail polish at the same time. :p

Well, to be fair, he didn't say they got more money from Texarkana, it was more about their perception of Congressional investigations (which makes me wonder what he'll tell them now).

One of the angles I didn't pursue, because I thought Bill Sledzik had already done a great job, was the fall-out for corporate partners, and Kivi referenced that in her post too. I did go on the Yoplait Facebook page today, and at least they had an info/questions tab that said they were listening. Komen didn't have anything like that, and they're the nonprofit, for heaven's sake. But that's something else people have to think about, isn't it - corporate partnerships. Because this kind of fallout has the potential to affect them too.

Shonali moderator

@KellyeCrane I was talking just yesterday with @mdbarber about what "truth" is and isn't. Because doesn't everyone color the "truth" with their own opinion? Even if one is reporting on facts, there are ways of positioning the facts, as you point out, Kell, to support your own position. Or selective sharing.

Komen has been taking heat about this issue for a long time, as @jenzings said when we were chatting on Facebook. I really wish they'd just put some more thought into how they were going to communicate their original decision, because they might not be dealing with the fallout.

It will be interesting to watch them pick up the pieces. I'm sure they will... but as you say, will they be able to restore their credibility in the eyes of so many people? And to what extent? And if they can't, will that drive them to *really* let their organization be driven by politics? And what impact will *that* have on the cause and, ultimately, on our society?

So many questions! So much to watch and learn from. Fascinating. And thank you for stopping by!


@shonali thanks for putting together such a thoughtful collection of links and best-practices


@Shonali At very least, the pink gun issue goes to demonstrate how out of control the pinkwashing has become. I saw the Gawker update, but it wasn't quite as clear as the HuffPo piece.

On the guarantee issue--I don't know. I just get the feeling that for a long time, it was proforma--they apply, they get the grant for screenings. Now, I think it would behoove PP to assume they won't receive the money. The stem cell issue is actually more bothersome to me, interestingly. It's even more money, being denied to research centers, simply because some program, somewhere in the facility is doing embryonic stem cell research. Not with the Komen money, or on Komen projects--just somewhere. It's ideology run amok, and it could have a real impact on research--but it isn't generating anywhere near the furor.

Incidentally, on CNN tonight they reported that PP stated that over the last few days of this controversy, they have raised $3 million. Over the threatened loss of $600K.


@Shonali "Selective sharing" - so true. BTW- shared this post with my husband -- even non-PR pros can learn from the information you've laid out here so well. Thanks!

Shonali moderator

@jenzings Amazing (re: PP's fundraising). I agree that it would behoove them to simply assume they won't be getting Komen funding moving ahead, and that way, if they do, it'll be a bonus. Hopefully they will be able to convert the support they got last week into long-term support.

The stem cell issue is troubling to me too. I think I saw you post somewhere else about this...?


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