The Unravelling of the Pink Ribbon



Great PR campaigns are inspiring and uplifting. Some of them leave you in awe thinking, “Wow, how creative”. Conversely, other public relations communications leave you shaking your head thinking, “Wow, I can’t believe they did that”. Both types provide a rich source of learning.

One major PR misstep can, unfortunately, unravel and damage the long, hard built reputation of an organization overnight. This was the case for Susan G. Komen for the Cure® when, in late 2011, the organization decided to cut its $650,000 funding to Planned Parenthood, whom they had been supporting since 2005. Planned Parenthood had been using this funding for cancer screenings and education.

Susan G. Komen, founded in 1982, is the best funded and most widely recognized breast cancer organization in the United States. They were the first to use the pink ribbon, which has become an iconic symbol for breast cancer awareness. They have raised and invested almost $2 billion in breast cancer research, community outreach, advocacy and programs. Simply put, they are huge.

The decision to cut the funding to Planned Parenthood was based on a newly implemented policy stating they would not fund organizations under federal investigation. Once the story broke in 2012, many criticized the move as politically motivated and bowing to the pressures of anti-abortion groups. Komen provided funds to 2,000 organizations, yet Planned Parenthood is the only one they broke ties with even though others, like Penn State University and Parkland Memorial Hospital, were also under congressional investigation. The decision appears to have been made shortly after Karen Handel, a former Republican candidate and prominent anti-abortion critic, became the organization’s senior vice president for public policy.

Nancy Brinker, founder and CEO of Susan G. Komen, denied the allegations of political pressure and said that their position has been “mischaracterized”.

In the meantime, Planned Parenthood sent out a request to supporters to help raise money to replace the lost funds. Social media sites, like Facebook ,Twitter and YouTube, go crazy with pro-Planned Parenthood and anti-Susan G. Komen messages, making the story go viral . Within 24 hours the lost funding is replaced and three days later it reaches $3 million. In the 24 hours after the story first hit in January 2012, Komen was ominously silent except to remove negative postings from their Facebook page.

Susan G. Komen later reversed its decision in February, but by then the damage had been done. Not only did they receive a ton of negative press, staff and board members started leaving the organization, they began to lose financial support, and their reputation was greatly diminished.

I find this case so interesting because it shows how quickly things can fall apart. An organization can be doing all the right things for a long time when one major blunder cuts deeply to undue all that hard work. This case demonstrates the importance of transparency, responding quickly and honestly in times of crisis and the need for forethought into how your actions might affect your loyal supporters.


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