The Week Komen for the Cure Destroyed Its Brand


The Super Bowl of women’s health happened last week. The winner? The Democratic Party-aligned Planned Parenthood, provider of numerous women’s (and men’s!) health services, including, yes, abortions. The loser? The heretofore unassailable Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the world’s largest anti-breast cancer organization.

On Tuesday, January 31, the Komen organization rather quietly announced that due to new grant policies, it would cease funding to Planned Parenthood. By Wednesday, Feb. 1, the backlash was on. Even author Judy Blume was slamming Komen as it stood its ground and attempted to weather the storm. That night its website was hacked. By the morning of Thur. Feb 2, Planned Parenthood was reporting donations in excess of what Komen had cut off, Komen executives were quitting in protest and local chapters of the national organization were in outright rebellion. Then a tweet, at top, that showed just how desperate the billion-dollar brand was to stop the hemorrhaging.

It did not stop. It still has not really. And maybe it never will.[more]

By Thursday, Komen had caved and released a statement saying it would restore funding to Planned Parenthood. The statement was reported as a victory and the hubbub soon died down. But some who read closely noticed that the commitment left open the door for Komen to again cut off funding. The less-than-solid statement left some skeptical.

It would be nothing short of crippling for Susan G. Komen for the Cure to wriggle out of its commitment to re-fund Planned Parenthood. Even as the worst of the media coverage has subsided after its capitulation, Komen’s brand is still being hammered by an online media that smells blood in the water. Thanks to Komen’s initial blunder, it’s now forced to deal with scandals to which it genuinely is not a party.

At the peak of the Komen storm, Gawker posted a story about how Komen had partnered with a gunmaker to sell “pink” handguns. A closer reading of the Walther P-22 Hope Edition 3.4’s sale page revealed that the truth was that sales of the gun would only lead to donations to Komen. The nonprofit quickly issued a series of responses on Twitter distancing itself from the pink gunmaker:

No matter, the Gawker story has 80,000+ pageviews and over 8,000 Facebook shares. Days after the Gawker story, Komen is still denying Gawker’s story about the gun partnership. This issuance of denials to Gawker’s story would keep @komenforthecure’s feed busy through the Super Bowl.

Details from Komen’s past that the brand could not deny though came back to bite it. First, the questionable partnership from a few years ago with KFC for the campaign “Buckets for the Cure.” Not only are tubs of fried chicken maybe not the best fundraising track for an anti-cancer organization, but also it threw fuel on the fire that the buckets never really generated more donations.

Far more damaging was the deep relationship Komen’s top executives have with the Republican Party, even as the nonprofit insisted politics played no role in its decision to cut funding to Planned Parenthood, one of the most primary targets of that party. It did not help that many saw Komen’s cut off of funding to stem cell research more proof of the charity’s Republican alignment.

As Komen’s long week wore into the weekend, the volume was turned down but the spotlights were turned up. While no secret before, soon it was revealed that Komen founder and CEO Nancy G. Brinker had a substantial history of donating to Republican candidiates. That Komen’s new policy executive, Karen Handel, was a former Bush administration appointee and an anti-abortion Republican candidate for governor of Georgia was well known at the start of the scandal. Just when it looked like Komen might—MIGHT—avoid being branded a partisan Republican charity, details emerged that just before Komen’s Planned Parenthood decision, the nonprofit had retained  former press secretary for George W. Bush, Ari Fleischer.

Not surprisingly, PR executives are camped out in Komen’s offices doing damage control. Or, in this case, what maybe should be called “disaster rubble removal.” It seems one of their first orders of business was to complete scrub the Komen website of any and all mentions of the debate. Indeed, the former statement links tweeted from @komenforthecure now all land nowhere and to see the homepage it is as if nothing ever happened (or is still happening).

A possible way out for Komen may be to axe Karen Handel and blame the whole sorry affair on her. But it may be too late for that.

Komen’s wading into political waters has resulted in the organization becoming, to use the technical PR term, “doublef**ked.” Progressives on the left now have the organization to use as a rallying cry for the continued defense of pro-choice politics. Conservatives, meanwhile, who never though of Komen as an anti-abortion ally, and who donated heavily in retaliation of Planned Parenthood’s boosted donations, see it as a traitor.

The result is that the cure Susan G. Komen now pursues is one not just of restoring its full former fundraising abilities (probably impossible) but also of restoring its brand to its former level of respectability (certainly impossible). In the meantime, there’s cancer.

What a disaster for a brand that, one week ago, was just whiling away its time and gearing up for a new season of wildly popular Susan G. Komen for the Cure three-day walks. February’s only event is the 19th in El Paso, Texas. But March has five major events, including one in Los Angeles, the city where the Komen affiliate openly rebelled against its national parent. (Awkward!) Will turnout be down? If so, how much? Will there be protests?

While the media feeds on outrage, these upcoming events will be the true test of how Komen’s brand is faring.