August 01, 2014
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February 7, 2012

Komen's Reversal of Fortune Goes Beyond Reputation Damage

By Larry Kamer, Principal, Kamer Consulting Group

The greatest fallout from the Komen crisis may be that the organization has lost something more valuable than money, more costly than lost time, and perhaps more precious than reputation and trust.

In the span of 36 hours it has, for many, lost the benefit of the doubt. That's the ingredient that determines the difference between a swift ascent out of crisis or an agonizingly slow slog. Will people believe what you say or will every little thing be challenged, debated, and nit-picked?

Komen has gone from being widely regarded as an organization singularly focused on eradication of breast cancer to one that's viewed through the lens of abortion politics. From a reputational standpoint, nothing hurts an organization more than an apparent division between its stated mission and what its actions convey.

Late last week, there was a flood of media coverage about Komen's "reversal." Founder Nancy Brinker said, "We will continue to fund existing grants, including those of Planned Parenthood, and preserve their eligibility to apply for future grants."

She then went on to apologize, which in most cases is the first step on the road to recovery after a crisis: "We want to apologize to the American public for recent decisions that cast doubt upon our commitment to our mission of saving women's lives."

My friend Rich Galen, a conservative blogger, spoke for a lot of Komen supporters when he Tweeted earlier today: "Kudos to #NancyBrinker for stepping in and getting a needless argument stopped."

But did she?

Not long after Komen's announcement there was another flood of media and online reaction that claimed, essentially, that Komen was merely putting a different headline on the same news it had issued yesterday, and that it would not actually restore funding to PP. I saw lots of posts that characterized today's events as a whitewash. As one friend of mine posted, "Maybe this is the start of a new meme: Sh*t Komen Says."

Typical of this very skeptical view was a midday post in Daily Kos:

Whether the Komen Foundation's statement does in fact signal a reversal of its policy towards Planned Parenthood remains to be seen. It is entirely possible that they intend to fund Planned Parenthood cancer screening services in the future, and we hope they do. It is equally possible that this is simply a public relations move designed to diffuse a lucrative brand from spiraling out of control — and the Komen Foundation will quietly reject future grant proposals from Planned Parenthood once they are out of the media spotlight.

Even if Komen's news had been received as an unequivocal reversal, this story has the potential for haunting the organization for a long time.

Consider the example of Netflix, which suffered through weeks of pain after announced sweeping changes to its business model, new charges, and even a new brand — Qwikster. Customers complained loudly that the plan would have made it more difficult to watch movies. Investors seemed to hate it as well. The company was criticized for the suddenness of its actions, poor communication from its CEO, and taking away a sense of customer control.

A month later, the company reversed course. CEO Reed Hastings made clear that he had made a mistake: "There is a difference between moving quickly — which Netflix has done very well for years — and moving too fast, which is what we did in this case."

Netflix took a big reputational hit. But it's survived — and has even been rewarded. Netflix stock has rocketed back to highs not seen since last fall's mess. The company regained 600,000 of the 800,000+ subscribers it lost.

Why? Because it left no doubt that it had made a mistake, heard its customers and investors, apologized, and moved on.

The firestorm of protest following the Planned Parenthood announcement was certainly more than Komen bargained for. It may well become the stuff of legend, the New Coke of the nonprofit world.

Where exactly do things stand with Komen? Has the organization reversed its decision regarding Planned Parenthood or not?

I've been following the situation pretty closely and I can honestly say I don't know the answer.

Comments

Kamer Almost Had It

The way this article started, I thought Mr. Kamer was going to nail it, then he, like so many others in this situation backed off the hot button issues and kind of left us all with conclusions that we already knew before reading this article. Big wup.

The trap he fell into here and nearly everyone who writes about the Komen story does is not only look at it through the "lens of abortion politics," but seem to draw the conclusion that if Komen doesn't continue its support of Planned Parenthood, it's in the wrong, and worse, is morally corrupt because it just may have changed course due to political pressure. So what does Planned Parenthood do? Rally the troops and apply pain to Komen in every way it could.

Regardless of your personal beliefs on abortion, there's something to be said for trying to stay away from that issue if abortion is not central to your mission. And then unapoligetically saying so, even if the stated us of the funds by the billion-dollar nonprofit was breast cancer screenings. I thought that's where Kamer was headed, but he stopped well short.

Organizations revisit their priorities every day and refocus on initiatives more central to their missions and they don't get bullied by Planned Parenthood and its allies for doing so. But in this case Komen's mistakes were: 1) Getting tied up with the controversial organization to start with; 2) Not going all-in when it pulled funding and being more honest about why it did so; 3) Live with the short-term fallout but stay true to its long-term focus on breast cancer awareness.

Komen was put in a lose-lose position unfairly by a much larger, more well off nonprofit. I wouldn't blame them if they gradually backed off when the dust settles. To be honest, isn't that what any of us would do with a bully? I'd like to see just one article not on "Sh*t Komen Says," but rather, "Sh*t Planned Parenthood Does."

Understanding What Grassroots Means.

When I saw news reports last week that Komen was pulling funding for breast cancer screenings from Planned Parenthood, I reposted the link on my FB page and encouraged my friends to spread the word. No one from Planned Parenthood had to ask me to do so. I just feel rather strongly that an organization fighting breast cancer should actually fight breast cancer and stay out of politics.

Planned Parenthood didn't do anything to Komen. Komen shot itself in the foot by taking a political stand instead of sticking to its health-care for women mission.

Nonprofits do refocus their missions all the time. I'm well aware of this. But there are consequences -- both good and bad -- when you do so. Komen learned that last week.

I'm taking a wait and see approach to Komen and whether or not I give them another dime of my money. They're not the only breast cancer organization around.

Well said, Trish!

Well said, Trish!

Disagree: Mess Started with Komen

Crisis, it was Komen who initiated this situation by not thinking things through. In the midst of this backlash, I haven't heard reports of other nonprofits being affected by Komen's grant changes. This along with today's Washington Post article and news of Ms. Handel's resignation add more fuel to the charge that Komen made changes based on political pressure and not on Komen's core mission of fighting against breast cancer.

The Washington Post story: http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/apnewsbreak-komen-official-quits-...

Bottom Line: Komen Blundered

Any organization that provides funding for projects has the right to change the criteria, standards and other aspects of their grant process. But Komen blundered into this mess by not fully planning their communication outreach efforts about the changes and made things worse by their "corporate-speak" response.

In Ms. Brinker's initial video response, she said Komen would always do what's best for its organization, donors, and volunteers. But that line is the problem and feeds the tirade against Komen: looking out for themselves instead of the people the organization is supposed to be advocating for.

As more reports come out about how (allegedly) Komen senior managers decided to change the grant process to deliberately break ties with Planned Parenthood (per a Washington Post article today), the mess will only get worse.

Women's health is complicated and unnecessarily political. Komen's marketing machine is definitely not designed to handle that.

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