Thursday, February 2, 2012

Hell Hath No Fury Like a Women’s Health Organization Scorned

Dispute Surprisingly Shows Which Organization is More Adept at Social Media and PR 

This week has seen a social media and press explosion between two of the country’s largest and well-known health agencies: The Susan G. Komen for the Cure breast cancer organization and Planned Parenthood.

Regardless of how you feel about the news or the organizations, a fascinating part of the media event is how the two organizations have or have not used social media and the press to present their views on the program. The sad part is that, on initial impression, the Komen Foundation might have permanently damaged their ability to unite women across the political spectrum to their cause.

The facts in brief:

Just before Christmas, the board of the Komen Foundation decided to remove grant funding for any organization that is under congressional investigation. Unfortunately, that was a rather narrowly defined decision because it was also decided only one organization that received grants from Komen was under investigation, Planned Parenthood. The investigation? One by a single pro-life Congressman, Representative Cliff Stearns, Republican of Florida. This decision ended five years of funding of several Planned Parenthood clinics by the Komen Foundation, funding which had been criticized by various anti-abortion/pro-life groups.

After learning of the decision, Planned Parenthood was rebuffed in its efforts to discuss the matter with Komen leaders. It took a long time, at least a month, before the decision was reported in the press on January 31, 2012. However, Planned Parenthood clearly had done a better job preparing for the social media and the press than Komen. In fact, Komen appears to have been surprised by the reaction and unable to respond for nearly three days – which may have made all the difference in the debate.

Kivi Leroux Miller, author of Kivi’s Nonprofit Communications Blog, yesterday did a communications analysis of the two organizations, and finds that Komen was unable to even post a tweet about the issue, while online activists were suddenly mobilizing against them.

Let’s compare media exchange between the two organizations.

When the news of Komen’s decision was broken by AP on Monday (Jan. 31st), the initial public reaction was entirely from Planned Parenthood.

Planned Parenthood's national website offered a press release, clearly posing the defunding as a political act, stating: "Anti-choice groups in America have repeatedly threatened the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation for partnering with Planned Parenthood to provide these lifesaving cancer screenings and news articles suggest that the Komen Foundation ultimately succumbed to these pressures." Then, in boldface quotes:

“We are alarmed and saddened that the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation appears to have succumbed to political pressure. Our greatest desire is for Komen to reconsider this policy and recommit to the partnership on which so many women count,” said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America."

Planned Parenthood, in the same press release announced the creation of a new “Breast Health Emergency Fund” to restore the funding for those screening exams, and announced the lead gift of $250,000 from the Amy and Lee Fikes’ foundation.

Curiously, the Amy and Lee Fikes’ Foundation is unknown on the web except from this press announcement. has no record of it, although there is a legitimate Leland Fikes Foundation. This suggests the foundation may have have been founded to deal with the Planned Parenthood controversy, which is fine. But it points to a possible aspect of Planned Parenthood’s preparation which may be another story remaining to be written.

This press announcement was followed by online campaigns by a variety of individuals on Twitter, Google+ and Facebook, as well as political groups like, to raise money for the Emergency Fund. In fact, if early reports are accurate, online pledges have already replaced a good part of the lost funding from Komen with over $400,000 already pledged.

According to Planned Parenthood, the Komen foundation funded 170,000 breast cancer screening exams over five years, out of 4 million exams performed over the same period. Putting this in perspective, 170,000 clinical exams is a lot, but it appears (if we’re really comparing apples to apples here) that Komen funded 4.25% of Planned Parenthood’s breast screening exams. This is far from insignificant, but certainly not a major hit to the overall funding of the program. Seeing that Komen’s funding went to just 19 of the Planned Parenthood’s 800 health centers, though, those individual centers would probably be affected severely.

One activist, Alison Fine, co-author of The Networked Nonprofit, quickly set up a web page called “Komen Kan Kiss My Mammogram!” announcing the goal of raising $1 million for Planned Parenthood. As of 4:55 pm on Feb. 2nd, they claim to have raised $3555 from 809 people. Perhaps this is a drop in the financial bucket, but it may be representative of many of the suddenly mobilized activists.

A distributed cartoon has been making the rounds


Komen seems to have been surprised by the controversy. For three days there was nary a tweet or a Facebook update concerning the issue, let alone a press release on their web site.

Finally, late Wednesday or early Thursday, Komen’s website posted a video from their founder and CEO, Nancy Brinker. In brief, she stated that the defunding is a result of a long review on funding priorities and never mentions Planned Parenthood by name. She also restated her organization's pledge to serve all women who need breast cancer screenings.

It seems reasonable to think that Ms. Brinker, as a former Ambassador and CEO of one of the nation's best-known charities, has some experience with media. Unfortunately, her video demeanor shows her as not only serious, but worried. Also, apparently reading from notes just off camera, she keeps her eyes glued to the script and not quite on the camera. This has the unfortunate side-effect of not making eye contact with the viewer. Reading some of the early comments under the video, this has produced a flurry of negative comments, some of them going far beyond political to the personal.

Although the Komen organization claims that the decision to defund was not political, the response of at least one anti-abortion group was almost gloating, according to Fox News:

"As a breast cancer survivor, I applaud the decision made by the Komen Foundation to discontinue their partnership with the billion-dollar, abortion mega-provider, Planned Parenthood," Americans United for Life President and CEO Dr. Charmaine Yoest said. "The work of the Komen Foundation has life-saving potential and should not be intertwined with an industry dealing in death."

Sadly, even Presidential politics are being dragged into the affair, “About 250,000 people have signed a petition on the website, a political supporter of President Barack Obama, calling on Komen to reverse its decision, Sarah Lane, a spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.” Italics mine. Quote from

The fact that supports Pres. Obama wouldn’t appear to have anything to do with their decision to create a petition. Chances are MoveOn would do the same thing no matter who was president. However, if the Komen group wanted to keep left vs. right wing politics separate from their funding decision, it now appears that it is out of their hands.

Even the satirical e-card site Someecards has weighed in on the controversy:


So, what will be the fallout from the controversy?

The Susan B. Komen Foundation, which has had a wonderful national reputation for its fight against breast cancer, may have permanently stained its pink ribbon campaign, which up to now was seen as apolitical. According to yesterday’s blog post on Kivi’s Nonprofit Communications Blog), ”Komen for the Cure, it seems, is no longer a breast cancer charity, but a pro-life breast cancer charity.”

Although there have been tweets and comments around social media from women saying they will no longer support Komen, there is a possibility that there will also be increased funding from conservative, anti-abortion groups which have boycotted the Komen Foundation because of its support of some Planned Parenthood clinics.

Planned Parenthood, no stranger to controversy or to Congressional and other investigations, appears to have had the more nimble response. By being the first to comment publicly, they have framed the defunding as clearly a political move. It has mobilized its own funding campaign, and has been joined by other social and political groups. They may be able to recoup the lost money in a few days’ campaign, no mean feat.

Permanently damaged is the good done by cooperation between the two associations and the appearance that breast cancer is a cause that unites all women and should be above mere politics.

Both organizations may lose some of their reputation by the dispute. Oddly, they may both increase funding as the issue becomes politicized, at least in the short term. It’s hard to see how the Komen Foundation is not the more injured party in the long term, but we will see. 

Since this article was first published, I found a news post published last night (2-1-12) from the pro-life web site announcing that the Komen Foundation has also removed funding from several cancer research groups which also do research with live stem-cells. The organizations which are no longer funded, according to the report, are Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, the University of Kansas Medical Center, the U.S. National Cancer Institute, the Society for Women’s Health Research and Yale University. - AB

This media situation continues to develop at a frenetic pace. Just this afternoon Republican New York City Mayor announced his own donation of $250,000 to Planned Parenthood to help make up for the lost funding from Komen, according to The Daily News, saying “Politics have no place in health care,” Bloomberg said in a statement on Thursday. “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.”

Tags: nonprofits, funding, fundraising, social media, press, Planned Parenthood, Komen