Pink Ribbon Gets Black Eye

March 1, 2012       Mark Hrywna      

For all its marketing might, the pink powerhouse that is Susan G. Komen for the Cure is going to need every watt of that pow­er to come back from its public relations misstep regarding de-funding Planned Parenthood and then revising its decision.

But what does one of the previously most trusted nonprofit brands in the nation have to do to regain that trust?

In the weeks following the nonprofit sector’s biggest public relations debacle in years, there was no shortage of post-mortems circulating the web and blogosphere regarding what Komen should and shouldn’t do to reclaim its brand.

The media and social networking firestorm exploded after a Jan. 31 Associated Press report that revealed the Dallas, Texas-based breast cancer charity had decided to discontinue most of its grant funding of Planned Parenthood of America (PPFA). Within a week, Planned Parenthood had jumped on the story and raised $3 million from supporters to make up for the potential loss of grants; Komen came out with conflicting reasons why it made the changes, before revising them; and, the Komen executive who was believed to have been a prime mover in the change, ended her nine-month tenure with the organization.

“They’re sort of a brand that typically transcends other brands, because they’ve been so effective at building a constituency, a base of supporters who are very passionate and bought into the brand,” said Kristian Darigan Merenda, senior vice president, business and social purpose, at global public relations firm Edelman. Komen for the Cure was profiled in a book she co-wrote, Breakthrough Nonprofit Branding, about how to expand your brand by mobilizing the external community and for its strength in demonstrating a strong constituency.

“Komen likely hasn’t done irreparable harm to the brand. It’s definitely given them a black eye, largely because this was sort of a symbolic decision,” said Merenda, affecting a fraction of its funding. It cast a negative light on the entire brand but she said there’s still time to repair the damage.

“There was a point in time, prior to this decision, where it was about breast cancer for sure, but it was about the sisterhood that was built: for my mother, a sister, a daughter, a loved one. It was very personal, very passionate, and really focused on the person,” she said. “As they move forward, they need to get back closer to that.”

Now Komen is getting hit from both sides: supporters who are enraged about how they handled the entire debacle and those who still don’t agree that they should be funding Planned Parenthood because an element of its work is abortion. As recently as June 2011, Komen is­sued a statement to try to explain its five-year granting relationship with Planned Parenthood.

As with any nonprofit, Merenda stressed the importance of not getting lost in Komen or Founder/CEO Nancy Brinker as the brand itself, but the people who supported them as the driver. “This is important for a lot of nonprofits. They grow to a certain size, fueled by a different source of confidence and new levels of business prowess; sometimes they either need to be reminded or go through an exercise to reclaim what made them great when they first started,” said Merenda.

“The challenge with Komen is they’ve been building toward this big disaster,” said Joe Waters, author of Cause Marketing for Dummies, who blogs about cause marketing at He points to the strong backlash from Komen’s partnership with KFC in 2010 and its numerous legal actions against smaller charities that incorporate the “for the cure” phrase. “Komen is so arrogant in everything they do,” he said.

Waters said that Komen just wasn’t listening enough to its base and the people they represent, and likely thought they could just ride out the Planned Parenthood criticism regarding the grant funding, as with the KFC Buckets for the Cure campaign. Even with backlash to the KFC partnership, Komen still raised $4 million from Buckets for the Cure, Waters said, making it the single most successful point-of-sale donation program ever.

Waters said Komen could have done some serious damage to its corporate partnerships program. “People have wanted choices about what they can give to, especially with breast cancer causes. That’s why the situation is particularly delicate,” he said.

“We’ve learned from so many different situations: it’s not what you do but what you do after,” Waters said.

Among the “steps to recovery” suggested by Nancy Schwartz of Maplewood, N.J.-based Nancy Schwartz & Co., who writes the Getting Attention! blog:

  • Reshape the communications strategy from megaphone to conversation. There’s no choice; if you don’t jump into the conversation, others will fill that gap for you, she wrote.
  • Build understanding and skills in all core communications channels, including social media. The fails there were stunning, and highly destructive to the organization, Schwartz wrote.
  • Anticipate the unexpected from past experiences, be prepared for it, and prepare to respond quickly, fully and clearly.
  • Make an internal commitment – across the organization – to honesty, transparency and consistency.

Merenda suggested that Komen must “reconnect with its constituent base in a 100 percent transparent way.” They have to have real conversations about why, what happened, apologize in a way that people feel is sufficient, and invite their supporters to help build the brand as they move ahead.

“Ultimately, if they had sat down with their constituents, connected with their constituent base, been transparent about the issues, but remained apolitical, I think they could’ve got ahead of this,” said Merenda. “The way that it came across was obviously ineffective, the way they apologized after just added fuel to the fire,” she said.

“In the end, I don’t know that it was a flip decision but it appeared that way because they reversed so quickly. And the reasons they gave, which is now on YouTube for eternity, actually showed they sidestepped what was going on. It was one more step to show that they’re disconnected from their base,” she said.

Merenda also stressed the importance of “radical” transparency. “In this world of 365/24/7 media access, you can’t a make mistake — whether you’re a nonprofit or a for-profit — and think that you can own and control the message. As much as possible, it’s important to be radically transparent in your decision-making process,” she said.

For a nonprofit, it’s important to continually invite constituents into the decision-making process, so they’re aware of what’s going on, and are part of that as much as strategically possible. “It’s about constantly coming back to your mission,” said Merenda, and organizations must ask themselves: “If this meeting was broadcast for all to see, is it something we’d fundamentally agree with?”

Volunteers don’t make the decisions but they help to inform, providing a real-time response to what is ultimately the heart and soul of organization, the staff. If there’s something potentially controversial, Merenda suggested hosting discussions to “get the feel for the pulse of some of your most passionate supporters, so at least they feel like they’ve weighed in.”

Obviously, getting out in front of the media maelstrom would have helped. “Anybody — including your employees — is a brand ambassador, and this information is not controllable. Constantly ask ourselves: What’s our brand stand for? Does this decision pass the red-face test? Is this conversation something we can stand up and be proud of?” NPT