Consumer Insights · Media Strategy · Brand Planning | Los Angeles, CA

Komen for the Cure Makes Its Own Communications Crisis

Nobody likes breast cancer. 

There’s a non-controversial sentence if I’ve ever typed one. Because nobody likes breast cancer, fighting it should be pretty non-controversial too; the largest organization that fights it should be pretty universally liked, right? It was, until yesterday.

Susan G. Komen for the Cure announced yesterday that it was cutting its funding to Planned Parenthood to provide breast cancer screenings. Since then, it has found itself embroiled in controversy over the decision, with highlights such as New York mayor, Michael Bloomberg pledging $250k to Planned parenthood, saying:

“Politics have no place in health care,”…“Breast cancer screening saves lives and hundreds of thousands of women rely on Planned Parenthood for access to care. We should be helping women access that care, not placing barriers in their way.”


While I doubt “placing barriers in [treatment seekers’] way” is a charge that will stick to the Komen Foundation for any length of time, they have now taken a stand, in the public’s eyes, on the other women’s health issue, reproductive rights. They’re (predictably) finding it much thornier and much more divisive than their core cause. How did they get here?

Thanks to my friend, Stephanie (@softjunebreeze), I found an interesting blog article on the ongoing PR crisis, by nonprofit marketing consultant, Kivi Leroux Miller. Miller details the events of the last 48 hours, observing that:

“Komen for the Cure, it seems, is no longer a breast cancer charity, but a pro-life breast cancer charity.”

The really interesting part of the article, however, is how she describes the silence of Susan G. Komen in the wake of this controversy. They dragged their feet on updating social media, giving any sort of statement, or putting out any other PR communication. In the vacuum they left, others have completely taken control of the conversation. Did we learn nothing from BP?

Last year, when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig made “containment boom” and “tar balls”  common household words, one of their greatest communications sins (and there were many to choose from) was how slow they were to get out in front of the problem. According to CNN’s John R. Kimberly

“[BP] consistently underestimated the magnitude of the spill by confessing to being “out of the loop” about decisions and processes on the rig, as CEO Tony Hayward did before a House panel last week. And the company failed to empathize with the plight of those most immediately affected by the spill — the families of those who lost their lives and those whose livelihoods are threatened.”

What Komen did this week is even worse, in a way, because the controversial event was their own deliberate doing. They had to know ahead of time they were stepping into a hornet’s nest. Whether that decision was ultimately in line with their mission and values enough to justify the risk, I will not speculate. However, they had to perceive that the risk was there. That would be akin to BP choosing to blow its rig up and not making a communication plan to deal with the aftermath.

I am (non-controversially) against breast cancer, and while I don’t care either way about the future of this specific organization, I sincerely hope that these events do not cause serious funding disruptions to cancer screening, treatment and research. However, I believe that the Komen brand will forever suffer no matter how they resolve the situation, and it is partially their own fault.

2 Responses to “Komen for the Cure Makes Its Own Communications Crisis”
  1. JAZIdivadg69 says:

    I like your journalist style and the analysis of this unfortunate policy incident; it is an extraordinarily poor example of how to handle a policy change. I’ll leave my statement at that.

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