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Brand Ambassador Revolt Wins: Susan G. Komen Foundation Reverses Defunding Decision

By on Friday, February 3, 2012
This graphic is circulating online in a big way. It references
Komen’s ubiquitous pink products, and makes it clear that
a revolt is underway among the foundation’s core audiences,
who are refusing to march lockstep in brand unison
on this decision.

Like many nonprofit PR pros, I’ve been following the fireworks over the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s decision to de-fund its grants to Planned Parenthood for low-income women to get breast exams and mammograms.

I’m convinced we’ve been watching the near downfall of one of America’s most well-known and successful nonprofit brands this week, due to inept communications and a core lack of understanding about brand management, esp. when it comes to stakeholders (aka brand ambassadors). When your brand ambassadors perceive your decision-making as violating the values of the cause – they are going to revolt. Because their loyalty goes far deeper than just an organization – they’re loyal to a movement for women’s health, and waging a war against a terrible disease.

Branding is not just about getting ribbons on a pantheon of products to raise funds for your cause. For years, the foundation has been aggressive in delineating its graphic and wordsmithed incarnations of its brand – going legally after small nonprofits (even those raising funds to find a cure for breast cancer) because they were using the term “for the cure” and the color pink, which I’ve written about before. As a result, their actions have turned off some potential brand ambassadors. These actions pointed to a lack of understanding within the Komen Foundation about the values driving their supporters.

Komen’s supporters and brand ambassadors just want a cure to breast cancer – and they want better healthcare in place that can save women’s lives. The values driving them are mission/cause-focused – not organizational loyalty. When news broke this week about the Komen Foundation’s defunding of breast exams and mammograms for low-income women through Planned Parenthood – Komen’s supporters felt their values had been fundamentally betrayed by the organization. And they weren’t going to stand for it.

Komen is facing a PR mess of gargantuan proportions that will cost way more than it was giving Planned Parenthood to fix. Its core stakeholders – including donors and board members for its affiliates, criticized the decision publicly (see this post on CNN), jumped ship (the main public health officer at Komen’s national headquarters resigned over the decision to defund Planned Parenthood), logjammed Facebook with commentary (check out the Komen Kan Kiss My Mammogram cause) and issuing statements expressing profound disappointment and outrage. Nonprofit consultants have also been doing a great job at dissecting Komen’s PR mis-steps – including Shonali Burke (7 PR Lessons Komen for the Cure Didn’t Know They Were Giving You, Nancy Schwartz, Kivi Leroux Miller (the Accidental Rebranding of Komen for the Cure), Beth Kanter (Komen Kan Kiss My Mammagram, PinActivism, and Newsjacking for a Cause).

This morning, the Atlantic posted some of the foundation’s internal documentation which was sent to Komen affiliates before the announcement. The documents show the headquarters knew a PR backlash to the grant defunding news was likely, but also portray a lack of understanding about their core audiences. Their local affiliates are advised to send media requests to one person – the spokesperson at the national headquarters – and given little to use to manage their own responses to what has surely been a tidal wave of outrage. It’s no small wonder that many Komen affiliates went off script and tried to distance themselves from Komen’s decision after it was public.

While writing this post – Komen announced a reversal to its decision (see MS-NBC), saying:

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.

The events of this week have been deeply unsettling for our supporters, partners and friends and all of us at Susan G. Komen.  We have been distressed at the presumption that the changes made to our funding criteria were done for political reasons or to specifically penalize Planned Parenthood.  They were not.

Our original desire was to fulfill our fiduciary duty to our donors by not funding grant applications made by organizations under investigation.  We will amend the criteria to make clear that disqualifying investigations must be criminal and conclusive in nature and not political. That is what is right and fair.

Our only goal for our granting process is to support women and families in the fight against breast cancer.  Amending our criteria will ensure that politics has no place in our grant process.  We will continue to fund existing grants, including those of Planned Parenthood, and preserve their eligibility to apply for future grants, while maintaining the ability of our affiliates to make funding decisions that meet the needs of their communities.

It is our hope and we believe it is time for everyone involved to pause, slow down and reflect on how grants can most effectively and directly be administered without controversies that hurt the cause of women.  We urge everyone who has participated in this conversation across the country over the last few days to help us move past this issue.  We do not want our mission marred or affected by politics – anyone’s politics.

Starting this afternoon, we will have calls with our network and key supporters to refocus our attention on our mission and get back to doing our work.  We ask for the public’s understanding and patience as we gather our Komen affiliates from around the country to determine how to move forward in the best interests of the women and people we serve.

We extend our deepest thanks for the outpouring of support we have received from so many in the past few days and we sincerely hope that these changes will be welcomed by those who have expressed their concern.

I’m glad to see the Susan G. Komen Foundation is shifting gears and reversed its decision. Their next steps will be critically important. They’ve got a lot of work ahead – to rebuild the faith and trust of their affiliates, donors and supporters (all those brand ambassadors).
Planned Parenthood is walking away from this week with more supporters, and has already raised enough money to replace what it was getting from the Susan G. Komen Foundation – and will now have more funding available for breast health exams and mammograms. Their use of social media and messaging during all of this will surely be studied and commented on by nonprofit communicators for a long time (as will the Komen Foundation’s mis-steps).

If nonprofits can take any lesson from this – it is that no brand, no cause – no matter how great – can act without factoring the reactions and opinions of its core stakeholders to its decision making. If those stakeholders believe your organization’s actions are contrary to your brand values and core beliefs, they will revolt. For brand ambassadors, it’s not about being loyal to the organization – it’s about being loyal to the cause.

Ami Neiberger-Miller is a public relations strategist and writer. She is the founder of Steppingstone LLC, a virtual and independent public relations practice near Washington, D.C. that provides public relations counsel, social media advice, writing services, and creative design work for publications and websites (portfolio). Ami blogs frequently about media relations, social media, public relations and other issues. She also reviews books on her blog about public relations, nonprofit life, work-family balance and social media practice. Follow her on Twitter @AmazingPRMaven.

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