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.

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