Creating a Crisis with No Upside

Nancy Brinker, founder and CEO of Susan G, Komen For the Cure, defended her organization's decision to drop funding for Planned Parenthood in a YouTube video.Susan G. Komen for the Cure has built a reputation for enlisting volunteers and corporate partners to combat breast cancer. The charitable organization nicked that reputation this week in a baffling self-created crisis.

Komen announced early in the week it would stop funding breast cancer screenings by Planned Parenthood. At first, Komen said the cut-off resulted because of a new policy not to fund organizations under investigation. Later, top Komen officials said there was a shift in funding strategy. By week's end, after angry outcries from women's groups, doctors and influential senators in Congress, Komen backtracked on its decision.

In one short week, Komen guaranteed itself a place as a case study in communications textbooks of what not to do to avoid creating a crisis.

After Komen made its announcement, critics used social media to denounce the decision as bowing to political pressure by anti-abortion forces, which have conducted a campaign, aided by Congressional Republicans, to dry up public and private funding for Planned Parenthood. 

Planned Parenthood says abortions account for 5 percent of its health care activities, which include screening low-income women for breast and cervical cancer. Women's advocates note Planned Parenthood is often the only place where poor women can obtain any form of preventive health care.

As controversy escalated, Nancy Brinker, Komen's founder and CEO, posted a video on YouTube saying a shift in funding strategy caused the cut-off of future grants to Planned Parenthood, not political pressure. The video was the most visible evidence that Komen failed to see the size of storm it had generated.

The blog Post carried a piece, titled "Susan G. Komen denies censoring message boards," describing an attempt by Komen to disable comments on its YouTube video, as well as on Komen's Facebook page and website message board. 

Leslie Aun, vice president of communications for Komen, denied any censorship of comments. She said, "The only time we delete messages is for profanity." Aun told the Washington Post blogger she was looking into the YouTube comment issue and noted the Komen blog was down because of "technical reasons."

Brinker is a very dignified and deeply dedicated advocate for curing breast cancer, which claimed her sister's life. However, her solo performance in the YouTube video came across as defensive and cold, as reflected by many of the comments that wound up on YouTube.

"This is unconvincing and leaves me shocked and disgusted that you are bowing to political agendas. Shame on you!"

"No longer funding people who help women find breast cancers will increase cancer deaths."

"Susan G. Komen must be turning in her grave at this incredible travesty."

Komen would have been better advised to anticipate this onslaught of negative commentary and prepare to deal with it proactively, especially on social media.

First off, Komen needed to get its story straight. Did it pitch Planned Parenthood overboard because it faces a congressional inquiry or because of a new funding strategy? The conflicting or seemingly conflicting statements fed skepticism about its real intentions.

Instead of the one-way video, Brinker and other Komen senior officials should have considered a live online format to answer questions and respond to charges. It surely would have been uncomfortable, but it would have forced sharper responses by Komen to its critics. And the public exchange itself would have been a positive talking point for Komen.

Komen officials also should have expected big-time political fallout. More than two dozen influential Democratic senators sent Brinker a letter urging Komen to reconsider dumping Planned Parenthood funding. It also should have considered internal dissension. NPR reported a top Komen official, Mollie Williams, resigned in protest over the decision. And the Komen Oregon board issued a statement disagreeing with the national organization's stance.

Another smart move would have been to show sympathy for and illustrate how the new funding strategy will benefit, not hurt, low-income women. That doesn't seem to have been the mindset inside Komen headquarters, where Vice President Karen Handel chose to retweet, "Just like a pro-abortion group to turn a cancer orgs decision into a political bomb to throw. Cry me a freaking river." 

Her retweet may have been dismissed as poor judgment, but critics took note than Handel, when running for governor of Georgia, vowed to cut off state funding to Planning Parenthood.

More fundamentally, Komen should have thought very carefully about maneuvering itself into the middle of one the nation's most intractable political arguments with no apparent upside. Komen may have gotten some quiet agitation from anti-abortion advocates for funding Planned Parenthood, but taking a public position to jettison the group took Komen out of the shadows onto center stage.

Ironically, Komen's decision may boost contributions to Planned Parenthood. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg made a personal pledge of $250,000. But it's hard to see how this ruckus benefited either group, both of which do invaluable work and save lives. If Komen would have thought about its reputation, not just its mission, all this could have been avoided.