Susan G. Komen PR Disaster: Lessons Learned

Rbc6_14Wow. It’s been nearly two weeks since my last blog post. Sorry about that. I was out sick. And wow, what a crazy time to sit on the sidelines…

Facebook IPO. Hello!  More on that in a future post.

Susan G. Komen vs. Planned Parenthood.  Sheesh! Let’s talk about that!

(Caveat:  I am a Blue State progressive; whose mother died of breast cancer; who marched on Washington as a college student in support of women’s rights; and whose dear-departed grandmother spoke with horror of the days prior to Roe v. Wade. Got all that?  You’ve been warned.)

Just as I started writing this post, the news broke that the Susan G. Komen Foundation – which had spurred a massive protest movement by severing grants to Planned Parenthood for breast cancer screenings (for what turned out to be a spurious rationale) – was reversing its decision. Oy!

Shall we count the ways in which this situation got screwed up (from a Public Relations perspective)?

They apparently made this decision back in December, and it led a top exec or two to quit in protest. And when they made the announcement, the Komen Board members were caught short by Planned Parenthood’s immediate (and compelling) response.  Yet the two organizations had been in talks for weeks beforehand!  In other words, there were plenty of red flags raised along the way to know things could get touchy.  Lesson: have a crisis plan ready; this could get ugly.

The decision to de-fund Planned Parenthood would result in thousands of underserved women in minority communities losing access to breast cancer screenings.  Imagine how much grief the Komen folks could have spared Komen2_adp1themselves if they’d tethered their PP announcement to news of their plans to ensure those communities still got care?  Instead it looked (and smelled, badly) like a cynical politicization of women’s healthcare, that left poor women in the cold…

… And this all occurred during the same week that the GOP’s presumptive nominee was caught up in his “I don’t care about the poor” slip-up… which led to “revelations” of the Komen Foundation founder’s deep ties to the GOP.  Can you say, “down the rabbit hole?”  Lesson: don’t lose sight of your mission.

To make matters worse, not only was the Komen Foundation slow to respond to the hubbub, but they even (allegedly) started deleting negative comments on their Facebook page.  For the record, that’s a no-no.  I brought this up on Twitter and got the following responses in quick succession:

Whether they deleted posts or not … the perception was that they were doing so. A more active response policy on their Facebook page would have gone a long way.  Even those who disagreed with them might have given ‘em props for responsiveness in the firestorm.  Lesson: community management principles of messaging, transparency and speed are paramount in a crisis situation.

Could it get any worse?  It did.

The good news is that both Planned Parenthood and the Susan G. Komen Foundation got a spurt of donations, from the left and right sides of the spectrum, respectively.  But, this only made crystal clear what was fairly obvious all along: this had been a political decision, and the ramifications for under-served women were thus made all the more stark.  In other words, the mission had been violated.  Which led to the reversal today.  Which led to sniffs of “too little, too late” from the Left and justifiable rage from the the thousands of newly-minted pro-life Komen donors on the Right. A classic no-win situation!  Lesson: “caving” is not always the right solution; Komen could have found alternate ways to serve poor women’s needs, i.e., through different advocacy organizations, and gotten enough credit to walk away bloody but unbowed.

All of this put the Komen Foundation’s many corporate sponsors in a bind.  Many of the sponsors’ own Facebook pages lit up with boycott calls and “for-shame’s.”  Facebook’s thumb’s-up became a wagging forefinger (or a proudly thrust middle one)!

The single best response from a sponsor came from the team at Yoplait Yogurt.  They created a separate tab on the Yoplait Facebook Page, dedicated to letting their fans vent about the situation (and in the bargain, wisely taking the political screeds off their main Wall):


Lesson: an oldie but goodie – “embrace and extend.”  Yoplait knew they couldn’t easily dodge the issue (their Pink Lids campaign was pretty huge), so they embraced that fact and extended it to a dedicated forum.  And, importantly, the Yoplait team didn’t just throw up this tab and ignore it. They continue to engage (rather non-commitally, but that is to be expected from a large corporation … at least they are present and listening).

By the way, there’s a great write-up on all this (if you’re game for even more on this issue) at Kivi’s Nonprofit Communications Blog.

Do you have any further thoughts on the Komen v. PP imbroglio?  I’m still kind of under the weather, but that likely means I’m more likely than usual to get it on with ya in the comments!  Have at it!

Posted on: February 3, 2012 at 2:27 pm By Todd Defren
26 Responses to “Susan G. Komen PR Disaster: Lessons Learned”


  • Jessica Robnett says:

    The interesting thing about the Susan G. Komen disaster is that it showed the power social media has by giving voices to the “voiceless.” I found out about Susan G. Komen pulling funds for Planned Parenthood on Twitter, and the rage that ensued from the public could be seen all over social media sites. Wow, what a cool society we live in when we have the power to protest things like this using the internet.

  • SHANNON says:

    It amazed me how long it took for Susan G. Komen to respond to this crisis. And now hearing they are deleting negative comments, I am at a loss of words. I have supported Susan G. Komen for many years, and participated in countless Race for the Cure 5Ks. My mother and grandmother are both breast cancer survivors. They are survivors because of regular cancer screenings. The fact that Susan G. Komen retracted funding to an organization that helps prevent women from dying is mind blowing. Although they may not support every aspect of Planned Parenthood, it is undeniable that their cancer screenings save lives.

  • BogdanSNB says:

    I still don’t really understand how the two organizations were in talks about this, but when it was announced PP was surprised.

    Anyway, really enjoyed this article!

  • This is a great example of Crisis NON-communication – their PR Firm needs to smooth these waves out before it gets any worse for them.

  • molly says:

    As a student studying PR, I have a feeling that I have more knowledge with preparation than the PR people at Komen. The first things you learn as a PR student are tell the truth and prepare for the worst. Komen failed in both of these areas. There is no excuse. When your demographic feels betrayed, there is something really wrong with how your corporation is operating.

    • Judy Gombita says:


      Tell the truth about what? Why SGK did not plan to give grants to PP in future? As it is a private foundation (not a “corporation”), where do you see the legal obligation to do so?

      You may not agree with the decision to stop funding PP in future (to “refer” mammograms, not actually give them), but if you do a bit of critical thinking about it, you might actually realize that there is no authorized court that would require this information. Oh, except in the “court of social media opinion.”

      Interesting that you only weighed in now, as I’ve found that most of the social media crowd have moved from dumping on SGK to dumping on PRSA for its three #PRDefined choices. It seems the crowdsourced versions don’t suit most of the people, even though they would actually relate better to the type of situation that SGK found itself in, where it didn’t pay enough attention to some important publics/stakeholders.

      Just like I predicted Netflix would rebound (stock prices back up, this financial quarter), I also believe that now that SGK has contracted a reputation management PR firm (vs. its existing consumer-focused one) AND plans to hire a senior-level PR person, it’s going to get its “organizational narrative” back on track. Gentleperson’s bet.

  • Mabel says:

    Hi, my name is Mabel Marte and I’m studying Social Media Theory & Practice with @dr4ward at @NewhouseSU. I am also a PR major. I subscribed to this blog couple of days ago, and had just recently been catching up with the latest posts.

    This is a very thorough recap of what is going on with this unfortunate situation. I didn’t know much about it, but thanks for highlighting all the details on how they failed to manage the situation properly. Communication is key for any successful relationship. I’m just glad Planned Parenthood is going to still have funds to help women in need. #NewhouseSM4

  • Jessica OVEREND says:

    I am in an Ethics in Communication class and studying this PR disaster has been an interesting way to think about ethical standards in large organizations. For the most part, the public sees national non-profit organizations as ethical because they are helping someone/a group who is less fortunate or needing the help. Personally, I never thought of Susan G. Komen as swayed by political decisions before this situation, but I know it will now be hard to not think of it when making any further opinions about the group. In Ethics in Human Communication by Johannesen, Valde and Whedbee, they discuss the “ethics of lying”. If we examine the Susan G. Komen situation by Charles Fried’s standards, Susan G. Komen acted unethically by withholding information from Planned Parenthood and the public. Fried says that “lying is always wrong because it demonstrates disrespect for persons as beings capable of rational judgments and of free and intentional choice,” (p. 102). He also says that withholding the truth about unimportant matters will not result in unethical acting. I believe in this situation, the public and Planned Parenthood did deserve to know why the funding was pulled and that the organization’s leaders acted unethically overall. Thanks for examining the situation in this blog post. I enjoyed reading your thoughts!

  • Lori Jepsen says:

    Oh and regarding FB posts, they were most certainly being deleted, the Komen participant site revamped last Friday and we were given new terms of acceptance in order to access the message boards which included verbiage stating that any negative comments could result in being expelled from the walk!

  • Lori Jepsen says:

    As a repeat walker and a member of a team that has raised over 2 million dollars for the Komen Foundation over the past 10 years, this past week has been gut wrenching and devastating. I think the biggest fall out is yet to come as walkers are pulling out in protest. It will be similar to the Netflix debacle of last year when they lost over 600,000 customers in a month and still didn’t apologize. Even Ari Fleischer declined to help Nancy Brinker with crisis communications! It is very sad that one individual with a personal agenda could potentially bring down the Foundation.

    Pink Ribbons is screening in San Francisco on March 29th at the Yerba Buena Center. We as a team are attending as now that this Pandora’s Box has been opened we should all be as informed as possible about the soft white underbelly of the breast cancer industry and while still continuing to fight be able to make better choices about where those hard earned donations go.

    • Judy Gombita says:

      Lori, I’m so thrilled that you are going to see Pink Ribbons, Inc. You are going to come away so enraged…I guarantee it. I’ve sent a message to my social media contact at the NFB ( about how you are going to see the film.

      But please know in advance that the Susan G. Komen foundation and its founder and CEO, Nancy Brinker, have relatively small screen time in this documentary (for which more than four years of research was done). Her foundation does raise the most money (more than a billion dollars so far) and has extended the farthest outside of the USA, but the work of the Revlon and Avon foundations is also shown (or in the case of Revlon, exposed).

      Amongst other things, you can come back and tell Todd about what Barbara Brenner, executive director of Breast Cancer Action (based in San Francisco) has to say about the Yoplait campaign….

  • Todd,

    This is a good recap of the entire unfortunate situation, with important suggestions about how to handle a crisis in the future. I didn’t see the Yoplait Facebook page with the dedicated tab, so thank you for pointing that out. As someone who has had a number of friends who have both survived and passed away from breast cancer, I empathize with your personal feelings about this issue. As a past donor to both the Susan G. Komen Foundation and Planned Parenthood, I was appalled when I tweeted, posted and signed a petition to the Komen Foundation, and NO ONE from Komen responded—so now, even though they eventually reversed their decision, I no longer trust them and do not plan to donate to their organization again. I will continue to support other reputable cancer related organizations. I will also continue to support Planned Parenthood, although they did not directly respond to me, but they did thank all the people who took a stand on Twitter and Facebook. Their corporate petition sponsor, CREDO, did send me an email thank you. There are many lessons here, and the biggest ones are the golden ones of charitable giving–always maintain the trust of your supporters, stick to your mission, and thank your donors at every opportunity–or they will feel betrayed.

  • Cherese says:

    I’m currently taking a crisis communication class, so as you can imagine we’re having a field day with this one. As you pointed out, there were several lessons to be learned from this situation. It seems that Komen was trying to contain the issue with deleting comments, but they should’ve known that it would only bring them more negative attention. The public doesn’t like it when organizations try to hide, let alone delete their comments. That just tells the public that what they have to say is not important. The best thing to do would’ve been to join the conversation. These organizations need to realize that if they don’t comment or respond in a timely manner, the conversation will continue without them which makes the recovery stage more difficult. There’s no way to get ahead of social media, but you can at least try and steer it in a positive direction. For example, Yoplait Yogurt giving people a separate forum to vent was an excellent idea. The public feels like its voice is being heard; yet it’s not affecting the Yoplait page visitors who have no connection to the incident.

    I still don’t really understand how the two organizations were in talks about this, but when it was announced PP was surprised…hmmm

    Anyway, really enjoyed this article, Todd!

  • bluerabbit says:

    They did not really apologize and they did not really reverse their decision. They are merely honoring previously-made commitments to 19 clinics and saying that PP is free to apply next year. Yeah, right, you are free to apply too. Lots of luck. This is spin at its worst and the media is acting as if it means something. Read the comments of supporters and you will see that this group represents a certain narrow opinion. Longtime contributors are angry because this agenda has not been made clear. People with those opinions are certainly entitled to an advocacy group, but pretending to be something else in order to obtain funds from the general public is dishonest. Many of us have now researched the group on charity watch websites. It’s easy to do. I recommend it. It will open your eyes.

  • I hadn’t seen the Yoplait Facebook reponse. Super smart … thanks for sharing, Todd!

  • Jean T says:

    Oh, they are DEFINITELY deleting…Liars. From my FB page:

    I tried to like this: Judy P The thing is……Komen has made it this far without the pro-fetus wingnut’s support so I don’t think any of them will be missed. Bye, bye now.

    Jean T and got this: Object cannot be liked
    Unable to like this object because it is not accessible (it may have been removed or you may no longer have permission to see it).

    And…tried a bit later to add a comment:

    No Permission to Add Comment or Trying to Comment on Deleted Post
    Sorry, you may not have permission to add this comment or the original post may have been deleted.

    • Judy Gombita says:

      Some questions for Jean T:

      Curious whether you used your full surname on the Komen Facebook account (unlike here).

      Regarding your “reply” to “Judy P” (presumably that’s me)

      “I tried to like this: Judy P The thing is……Komen has made it this far without the pro-fetus wingnut’s support so I don’t think any of them will be missed. Bye, bye now.”

      I’m not sure what you are referring to regarding you “tried to like this” in regards to me. What? The Yoplait campaign (which was the only campaign I referenced)? Pink Ribbons, Inc.? (Have you seen it?)

      And your “bye, bye now” note…was that also directed at me?! Considering I’m coming at this from a Canadian’s perspective (socialized health care and not everything being politicized regarding women’s reproduction), I’m not sure to which “pro-fetus wingnut’s support you are referring?”

      Perhaps you meant to direct your comment to someone else discussing these (distinctly American-centric, politicized) issues, rather than me, referring to Yoplait and a documentary film denouncing capitalist greed in regards to cause marketing?

      I can appreciate criticisms, but when you attach my name (or Judy P’s) it would help if you address things I actually wrote, rather than some odd speculation.

      Comment to Jessica Overend:

      I think it’s too soon to make a definitive decision about Susan G. Komen’s “ethics” or not regarding its indication that grants would not be given to Planned Parenthood IN FUTURE. (PP only gives referrals for mammograms, not the mammograms themselves–as confirmed by its Twitter account. Why did so few research and/or notice that fact? Again, in Canada it’s a non-issue, as mammograms are available to all women–per age/doctor’s referral–and funded by the province of residence.)

      Anyhow, Jessica, I think revisionist history is already happening, especially now that SGK has retained Ogilvy Public Relations (per the Washington Post) presumably for reputation/issues management. I’m already seeing the narrative starting to change, with more and more journalists and bloggers weighing in that PP actually hijacked SGK’s narrative. (Full props to PP for some very proactive PR!)

      Ultimately what it comes down to is that Susan G. Komen can decide to whom/when they give grants. As a private, non-profit foundation, it is the decision of the board/senior staff.

      Whether decisions result in losing grass-level support for its various “walks for the cure” etc. remains to be seen. Per Pink Ribbons, Inc., women and men really appreciate playing a role in these walks. If the SGK ones don’t happen…where will the direct participation go?

      Personally, I have more problems with the dodgy corporate partnerships (like KFC’s Pink Buckets for the Cure), then I do with where the billion and a half dollars in funds raised by SGK is granted. And per Pink Ribbons, Inc., I’d like to see SGK spend more money on RESEARCH to find out what causes the various forms of breast cancer (there’s at LEAST five types), in terms of future PREVENTION. Not to mention money for (possible) environmental causation RESEARCH. Then SGK could live up to its tagline of “for the cure.”

      I can’t believe the idiotic “mammograms cause cancer” memes going around. But the fact is, mammograms aren’t research–they are (faulty) detection. (Faulty in that they often give “false positive.”) And mammograms don’t “cure” anything. On the other hand, I think Americans should be questioning why their governments don’t ensure access to “detection” mammograms (or prostate tests for men) to all?

  • Judy Gombita says:

    After seeing the National Film Board of Canada’s documentary, Pink Ribbons, Inc., I don’t think many people are going to be overly impressed with the Yoplait campaign….

  • Douglas says:

    Sad such a important cause was impeded by a political fight. What was planned parenthoods response to this? Have they spoke out against koman?

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