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Founder & CEO Nancy Brinker leading a PR disaster

It is a public relations worst case scenario.

The decision-makers in an organization make a bad decision and then after it becomes public, the organization desperately seeks to ignore the obvious. Unfortunately, in a Social Media world, making a bad decision is tragic enough, but to try and deny the obvious is fatal. Such is the fate for the Susan G. Komen Race to the Cure foundation.

When a for-profit angers their customers they may see a downturn in sales, but often the customer often has some dependency on the product or service, so they may be willing to eventually forgive and forget.

Non-profit organizations are different. Non-profits depend on public goodwill and in the case of the Susan G. Komen foundation, they are heavily dependent on the active involvement of volunteers and donors of all political and religious views for their Race For the Cure® runs. While the Komen foundation’s purpose is noble, there are many organizations working on behalf of cancer victims and raising awareness of cancer issues. The Komen foundation has no lock on those people who have supported them in the past and continued goodwill is necessary for their continued survival.

A View To A Kill
The Komen foundation had been haunted by religious and conservative political groups once it was learned that grants by the foundation had gone to Planned Parenthood. These grants were specifically for women’s breast health issues, but the conservative groups kept pressure on the foundation to stop all funding of Planned Parenthood.

Karen Handel and Sarah Palin at campaign event

Enter Karen Handel, a rabid anti-choice advocate. Handel unsuccessfully ran for Governor of Georgia in 2010, on an anti-choice/defund Planned Parenthood platform. Her campaign was endorsed by Sarah Palin and Arizona Governor Jan Brewer. Handel narrowly lost in a primary run-off election. In April 2011, The Komen foundation hired Handel as Vice President in charge of public policy. The choice of Handel in this position was a clear message the Planned Parenthood funding would be in jeopardy and the first step in the PR nightmare to come.

In December 2011, the Komen Board of Directors created a procedural rule that would allow the organization to defund Planned Parenthood. The reaction within the organizations was immediate. According to an article by Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic, Mollie Williams, the senior public health director quit in protest. At least two sources in Goldberg’s article indicate that the procedural rule was invented to allow the Komen foundation to cut funding to Planned Parenthood.

After the decision became public the reaction throughout Social Media was quick and massive. People began announcing their condemnation of the decision and that they would no longer support the Komen foundation and the Race For the Cure.

A Possible PR Save?
Once the scope of the reaction became obvious, the Komen foundation might have had a public relations opportunity to save the organization by voting to reverse their decision and immediately firing Karen Handel and any others responsible for putting the organization in a public image blood bath. That move would have instantly made them the target of conservative political and religious groups, but the organization had already experienced that pressure. A reversal would have helped to restore their public image and bought back some goodwill.

 The one thing they could not do was spin the decision to try and make it look palatable to the non-Conservative public.

The Nail In The Coffin
Rather than facing up to the bad decision the Komen foundation, led by CEO and Founder Nancy G. Brinker, instead began aggressively spinning the decision and denying the conservative religious and political motivations. Choosing to stand by the decision has now compounded the PR disaster assuring a slow and dishonorable death for the Komen foundation. Blogs are discussing the organization’s budget and how much money is retained for administrative costs. Certainly they might gain some short-term financial support from well-financed Conservative donors; however, they will not be able to replace the legions of volunteers who made The Race to the Cure possible in communities throughout the country.

It is apparent that the Susan G. Komen foundation leadership has little understanding of the impact of Social Media on public relations. They have acted as if they were operating in 20th Century media environment where a bluff could be held through a news cycle and the voice of the organization could drown out the facts of a situation. Now Nancy G. Brinker has spent all her credibility and has become the face of the scandal. Unfortunately, there is no turning back now. The Race For the Cure has made themselves political by making this decision, and by trying to spin the story they have made a serious wound a fatal one.


At approximately 8:30 AM PST on Friday, February 3, 2012, CNN said the Komen Foundation was reversing its decision and would fund Planned Parenthood.