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Can Komen Recover From Controversy?

Nancy G. Brinker, CEO and founder of Susan G. Komen for the Cure.
Susan G. Komen for the Cure
Nancy G. Brinker, CEO and founder of Susan G. Komen for the Cure.

The Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation has had one of the worst weeks in terms of public relations of any organization in recent memory.

On Friday, Komen announced it would reverse its decision to block most of its grants to Planned Parenthood, which had created a widely discussed controversy. Komen initially said it had cut the group off because Planned Parenthood is the subject of a congressional inquiry into purported use of federal funding to perform abortions.

But the about-face doesn't mean Komen's troubles are now over. Rebuilding the damage done to its image will be a formidable task, says Dawn Gilpin, who teaches public relations at Arizona State University.

"Coming back from something like this is really difficult," Gilpin says. "Good PR is not doing things like this to begin with."

NPR asked Gilpin to discuss what Komen can do to recover from the blows to its image. In addition to teaching at ASU's Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, she is a co-author of the book Crisis Management in a Complex World.

Q. If you were advising officials of the Komen foundation, what would you be telling them to do?

Gilpin: They've already announced that they're redoing their rules, so that their rule against funding projects that are under investigation will only include criminal investigations. That's good, but they should be focusing less on the legalese, like they're trying to get by on a technicality.

This is going to be a sidebar whenever a nonprofit does something political. It's going to be used in classes, as in, 'Don't do this.'

It would be better if they put a lot more emphasis on the importance to them that women of all types and places and economic circumstances have access to both screening and treatment of breast cancer. That needs to be their main talking point — that that's what the core of their mission is and they'll do everything in their power to make that happen.

Q. How long do you think it will take Komen to recover in the public eye?

Gilpin: It's harder now than it used to be because of the Internet. The Internet stores things forever, so this is never going to go away. This is going to be a sidebar whenever a nonprofit does something political. It's going to be used in classes, as in, "Don't do this."

The other reason that the Internet makes it difficult is now it's easier for people to do a lot of research. Because of the information-sharing culture we have now with social media, even people who don't do their own research can be exposed to things they didn't know before — some of which can be unverified and not true, but they see the headlines on their Facebook feed.

Q. Is it harder for Komen, as a nonprofit, to come back from something like this than it would be for a corporation?

Gilpin: It's qualitatively different when you're talking about a nonprofit, versus a company that sells products you might need. People tend to be a little more cynical about corporations anyway.

A nonprofit relies on discretionary funds, often very small amounts from a lot of people. I think Komen is even more vulnerable than most nonprofits to backlash and negative publicity that makes people not want to associate with them.

They have to rely on people being willing to associate with their brands, taking part in Race for the Cure and the pink ribbon campaign. Komen does a lot of fundraising through their races and the selling of products, but none of these products are vital in daily life.

Q. The pink ribbons have become so ubiquitous. Does that make them even more vulnerable to a backlash?

Gilpin: They have so many pink-branded objects all over the place, aside from the specific things with the ribbon on it. Now, you see pink and one of your associations is that it has something to do with breast cancer. Even if you don't know the name Susan G. Komen, you know the pink ribbon.

Becoming a powerful cultural symbol like the pink ribbon can lead to high visibility. That can be helpful, because if people want to donate to breast cancer your organization is the first one people turn to. But you also become a lightning rod. You become the first to go when the tide turns at some point, as it always does.

Q. Komen sought to deflect criticism by restoring possible funding for Planned Parenthood. But won't that anger the many people who had donated to Komen this week in support of its original stance?

Gilpin: That was actually my first thought when I saw that they had reacted in this way. This might actually be worse for them. Because it was such a heavily political decision and because we are in a very polarized moment culturally and in the campaign year, I think they have pretty much now alienated, by going back on their original decision, a lot of people.

Q. Are there other famous cases of PR crises that the executives at Komen will try to draw lessons from?

Gilpin: My work about crisis has to do with complexity. It's situational and depends on all kinds of factors you can't control. What works today might not work two years from now.

We have a lot of factors playing into how this is going to unfold over the next few weeks and months. This oversaturation of the pink ribbon campaign, and the fact that we're in a campaign year and that this is really a political crisis in a lot of ways — all of these things will come into play.

In terms of Komen, there are other races and other opportunities to donate for breast cancer.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.
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