How-to Health Communication: Crisis Public Relations and the Susan G. Komen For the Cure Foundation

Crisis communication has to be a part of any organization’s make-up.  Why? The same reason the words “I’m sorry” are part of human vocabulary:  humans make mistakes.  Being able to effectively deal with a blunder,  can tell a lot about an organization.

So, what can be learned about the Susan G. Komen For the Cure Foundation from its continuing difficulties since February 2012?  A lot.

Historically, Komen has had positive press: after all, its creation is based one woman’s promise to her dying sister.  So it isn’t surprising that in January 2010 the Harris Interactive Survey ranking of 79 non-profits brand along a number of criteria,  Komen ranked # 2 in Trust and #1 in Brand Equity (familiarity and quality).  It also ranked as the #1 non-profit to which people are most likely to donate.

Yet, in December, 2011 executives at Komen decided that the Foundation would not be funding cancer screening exams at Planned Parenthood.  In March, a month after the story broke, Harris International’s press release described a huge drop in Brand Equity for SGK: a fall from #1 to #56. 

Without a crisis management strategy, the Komen Foundation has stumbled  for months. Why?  Summing up, it is because the Foundation has not followed the five steps that are basic to public relations crisis communication.

STEP 1:  The first step is to be prompt and address the situation immediately.  Once the story broke, Komen should have addressed their reasoning for their decision.  Yet in this case, when the news broke via the Associated Press, Planned Parenthood used social media, Facebook, email and twitter to spread the news.   In contrast, Komen did nothing.  Planned Parenthood framed the story.

STEP 2:  Another step in crisis public relations is to be informative.  When the rationale for the decision was not fully explained, rumors proliferated. After letting Planned Parenthood frame the initial story, a public outcry occurred over the decision (with protests from its own affiliates) and the Foundation reversed its decision.  The explanation that Komen gave for their first decision was that they wanted to avoid funding organizations that are under investigation by authorities.  Yet Komen’s continued funding Penn State’s Milton S. Hershey Medical Center to the tune of $7.5 million despite also being under investigation by local, state and federal investigations.

STEP 3: This inconsistency calls attention to the third step in crisis management:  be honest with the public.  As the above illustrates there may be a history of problems with Komen’s communication strategy along these lines.

As Rachel Moro stated on her blog

On their website, Komen clearly states that is their mission “to end breast cancer forever”.  This mission ties in nicely with the organization’s recent name change to Susan G. Komen for the Cure®. Straight-forward. For. The. Cure.  What does this statement mean?  To anyone reading it or hearing it, the mission “to end breast cancer forever” and to be “for the cure” would mean there would be a significant amount of money going from the Komen Foundation to research to actually end it forever and find a cure.

Moro, an accountant, did an analysis on The Komen Foundation’s public records.  She states that “Komen’s total “Net Public Support and Revenue”for 1982-2010 would total somewhere in the order of $2.1 billion.  Only $491 million of that has been spent directly on research.  That means that $1.6 billion has been spent on other things.”  What has it been spent on?

Komen’s records state that between 2004 to 2009, Komen allocated a total of $1.54 Billion of “Net Public Support and Revenue” to the following categories: Education 36%; Research 25%, Administration and Fundraising Expenses 22%; Screening 11%, and Treatment 6%.  As can be clearly seen similar amounts of funding were spent on administration and fundraising as on research.

So there is an important message that anyone who donates to the Susan G. Komen Foundation For the Cure needs to know. As Andrea Rader from Komen stated, finding a cure doesn’t mean actually doing research,”Research is just one piece of delivering cures for cancer. Education is critical: even today, many women don’t know they’re at risk for breast cancer, or they continue to believe myths like underwire bras cause cancer (they don’t).”  Komen’s definition of “for the cure” does not mean doing research.

STEPS 4 and STEPS 5:  Steps four and five in public relations crisis management go hand-in-hand. Step four is showing the public you care.  Step five is maintaining two-way communication, that is, listening to the public.  There has been a vocal group of women with breast cancer who have been trying to get the Komen Foundation’s attention. One blogger and journalist, Brenda Coffee, was able to ask a spokesperson, Leslie Aun, the National Director of Marketing and Communication for Komen for the Cure,  to post on her blog.  The requirement of that posting opportunity was for Aun to respond to the many concerns of the breast cancer blogging community, for example, the partnerships Komen has made with brands like Mike’s Hard Lemonade (alcohol consumption associated with breast cancer) or the selling of “Promise Me” a perfume with carcinogenic ingredients. Aun was supposed to respond to comments to her post and thus provide a mechanism of communication.  Aun wrote her post.   According to Coffee, it was a defense of the Komen Foundation.  Aun did not respond to any of the comments that were made to her post.

So the Susan G. Komen Foundation For the Cure has been going through some significant personnel shifts over the past few months.  But is this enough?  Susan G. Komen was a young woman who had an extremely aggressive breast cancer that metastasized.   The Foundation that is named after her needs to remember that this terrible tragedy of her loss is being repeated.  Breast cancer is not being cured.

In those who have metastases, it is a life sentence to constant invasive, painful medical treatment and eventual death. Moro  poignantly wrote, “For me and the people I know who are in treatment for breast cancer, we understand a “cure” for our disease to mean that we will be completely healed and never have to worry about breast cancer invading our lives ever again. “  This is poignant since she died of breast cancer in February 2012, close to the time when all of the decisions about Planned Parenthood broke in the press.

The case of the Susan G. Komen Foundation For the Cure is not over.  There is time to work through this crisis with openness, honesty, information, and two-way communication with those who have breast cancer and their loved ones.  The officials leading Komen just need to take a few steps.





9 thoughts on “How-to Health Communication: Crisis Public Relations and the Susan G. Komen For the Cure Foundation”

  1. Kathleen,
    What a perfectly written, spot on, completely accurate account of this whole mess. Required reading for anyone who isn’t getting the real picture and continues to persist in the notion that any of this is okay. We all realized SGK is at a crossroads. Which road they choose, IMHO will determine the fate of the organization. They can refocus their mission and use that stupid ribbon and their name recognition to MAKE A DIFFERENCE. So many still blindly follow Komen because, it’s Komen (and they live under a rock in a cave somewhere and know nothing of what has been going on since February). Something is UP with them. I was pressured to buy a $2.00 pen in Staples. I blogged about it today. It happened twice in 18 hours. Two different clerks. Same pressure. “It’s for a good cause, it’s to support Komen.” My tongue still hurts from where I bit down with my teeth. Seems to me, based upon my own non-scientific observation, they are trying a “back door” method of raising their revenue. Sell a $2.00 pen at Staples….. and I’m wondering what other “corporate sponsors” have similar hard sell tactics taking place at the check out register. Please visit the new Facebook Page. Pink Ribbon Hall of Shame. Lori and I are hoping to put all of the “questionable” ribbon products in one place for all to see.

    GREAT job… and thank you for being my friend and such a strong supporter of the (Big AHEM) “cause.”



    1. You are terrific…I am wondering what’s next with the Foundation…it would be great if they would try to listen in a little to the people who have breast cancer and aren’t happy with pink…I’ll check out the Facebook page right now. Thank you my friend for your endorsement. Love backatcha, Kathleen

  2. Kathleen,
    What an excellent post. The courage required of organizations to perform an about-face also demands leadership. It takes people willing to do what is right, not what will appeal to management to protect one’s job. No one at Komen fits those requirements just yet. Imagine a bolder tactic for Komen to include that its Board be comprised of at least 25% of patients with metastatic breast cancer. Imagine further that its course must dictate at least 70% of all funding to be directed to research, and half of that sum to be focused on metastatic oncology. That would be bold, unvarnished and speak with clarity that its current management lacks. One can only wish…

  3. I’m wondering what’s next at Komen too, but sadly, my expectations are low. It continues to boggle my mind how low research seems to be on the list of priorities for an organization with the word cure in their mantra. Thanks for writing.

  4. Spot on, Kathleen. My background is in Corporate Communications and indeed, SGK has written the blueprint for what *not* to do in a crisis. I’m so glad to have met so many of you via #BCSM and perhaps this October will be a little less stressful because we are all joining forces to change the dialogue and educate. Excellent post.

  5. You are spot on about what happened with Komen. I just hope that people don’t stop giving to organizations that are truly working on finding a cure and trying to help those with metastisis. I would love for them to find a way to reverse METS, Thanks for this great post.

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