A correction has been made in this story. See below for details.
In a case for the marketing textbooks, Susan G. Komen for the Cure showed how a brand can boomerang from one of the most loved into one of the most reviled in a head-snapping two days.
The story of how Komen got consumers seeing red, rather than pink, says a lot about how social-media wildfire can singe even the most fireproof of brands. But it also demonstrates how inconsistent communications can fan the flames, and illustrates how quickly sponsors can become engulfed in controversy. On its website, Komen, which has raised billions of dollars for breast-cancer research, lists more than 200 corporate partners. The question now is how much collateral damage those partners have sustained, and whether Komen can persuade them to stick around in the aftermath.
AP broke the story Jan. 31 that the charity was withdrawing funding from Planned Parenthood. Komen quickly became the New Coke of nonprofits last week when within 48 hours it confirmed that it was pulling funding, contradicted itself in explaining its motive, and then backtracked on the decision following a groundswell of protest. It initially cited a new policy requiring it not to fund organizations under government investigation. The move prompted Planned Parenthood to berate the organization for letting right-wing, pro-life politics influence its decision, and critics quickly took up the cudgel on Facebook and Twitter.
The first public response, a video of founder and CEO Nancy Brinker via YouTube, didn't help. PR executives said the background -- a stuffy library -- and Ms. Brinker's seemingly calculated statement was counterproductive. "Nancy Brinker is coming across not like the woman who made the promise to her sister," said Carol Cone, vice chairman of the business and social-purpose group at Edelman. "Unfortunately, she's coming across so hard."
A day later, Ms. Brinker told the Washington Post that the real reason for the funding cut "…has to do with the fact that [Planned Parenthood does] not provide mammograms to women, but only provides mammogram referrals." That same day, a Komen board member flip-flopped the message again. Lobbyist John D. Raffaelli told The New York Times that Komen "had become increasingly worried that an investigation of Planned Parenthood by Rep. Cliff Stearns, R.-Fla., would damage Komen's credibility with donors."
But Komen was doing a fine job of damaging that credibility on its own. What started as a communications crisis quickly flamed into a brand crisis as the organization went more than 24 hours without a tweet, during which time consumers besieged the Facebook pages of Komen's corporate partners and voiced concerns on Twitter. As of Feb. 3, there were 18,645 likes on the "Defund the Komen Foundation" Facebook page. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg gave Planned Parenthood $250,000 out of his own pocket, indirectly admonishing the organization's decision.
"If they had quickly come out and communicated and said, 'Oops, we blew it,' that 's one thing. But 48 hours is an eternity today with social media," said Kivi Leroux Miller, author and blogger at the website Nonprofit Marketing Guide.
Now its reputation -- in a Harris poll last year Komen ranked second among nonprofits in terms of trust and tops in brand equity -- and the stability of its relationships with corporate sponsors hangs in the balance. While it's said the organization has not lost any official corporate sponsors at this point, it will have its work cut out for it in the coming weeks in reaching out to sponsors, partners and affiliates.
When asked how a sponsor should react, Ms. Cone said, "I'd follow it and wait it out first. Komen has to stay true to what it does, [which is ] help to build a sisterhood, continue to create awareness and help those who need to get preventative [care]." Some sponsors may have time to think it over; Breast Cancer Awareness Month is October.
General Mills, which is one of the marketers most publicly allied with Komen via its Yoplait brand, said: "We are committed to the fight against breast cancer, and we will continue to partner with organizations that will have the greatest impact in that fight." And Pepperidge Farm told Ad Age that it "concluded its sponsorship of Susan G. Komen for the Cure at the end of 2011 for business reasons." Related or not, that timing coincided with when Komen told Planned Parenthood of its decision.
Komen declined to comment. Former George W. Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer, who had previously been brought in by Komen to assist with an executive search for a senior VP-communications, provided informal advice. "When Nancy called me, I gave her my two cents worth," he said via email. Ogilvy is Komen's corporate and issues firm on retainer and was helming the issue as of Feb. 3.
"It's surprising that such an established organization didn't take a pulse check on different stakeholders," said Tara Greco, senior VP-corporate responsibility at APCO, a public-affairs firm.
"Did they not learn, especially at the highest level, about the power of social and of their own community?" asked Ms. Cone, citing the outcry over its earlier gaffe of painting pink ribbons on buckets of KFC.
All that said, it's likely the brand will be forgiven. "There's still awareness to be made and funding for search and access to services that are critically needed," Ms. Cone said. "I don't think [Komen] will go away."
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CORRECTION: We originally reported that Ari Fleischer initially helmed the public relations effort around Susan G. Komen's decision to withdraw its support for Planned Parenthood, when in fact he had no responsibility for the PR effort but rather provided advice informally. Ad Age regrets the error.