Who Really Owns the Komen Brand?

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In the wake of a tumultuous week of twists and turns for Susan G. Komen for the Cure and Planned Parenthood, today’s resignation of Karen Handel, Komen’s vice president for public policy, comes as little surprise. In her resignation letter, which The Associated Press obtained, Handel states that her objective from the beginning was advancing a policy that would seek to pull financial funding from Planned Parenthood and “distance Komen from controversy.”

While inoculating an organization from attack is certainly a worthy goal it cannot be done without understanding the attitudes and values of key stakeholders. Organizations must understand that goals are shaped by the external environment.

In the end, Handel and other leaders did not consider who really owns the Komen brand.

Who Owns Your Brand?

The objective of many marketing or communication programs is driving a transaction – be it a purchase, investment or contribution – and motivating and empowering brand advocates to support that endeavor. The Holy Grail of public relations goes beyond simply connecting and engaging with an audience. It goes even further than changing behavior or perceptions in support of your brand. The Holy Grail is unleashing an army of third-party advocates to influence others on your behalf.

Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the foundation dedicated to education, research, treatment, and an eventual cure for breast cancer, had such an army. Millions of woman and men regularly displayed their pink ribbons with pride and literally marched in support of the organization, soliciting contributions from friends and neighbors, and urging others to join the cause.

But last week, when The AP broke the story that Komen would no longer award grants to Planned Parenthood, and then days later – following a media firestorm and a particularly swift public rebuke via social mediareversed its decision, it revealed an equally powerful strength of brand advocates: backlash. Political opinions aside, the Komen/ Planned Parenthood issue represents one of the biggest (if not the biggest) self-inflicted public relations misstep in modern business, and provides a lesson for all professional communicators. Related: Waggener Edstrom CEO Melissa  Zorkin on Komen’s faulty PR strategy.

While women’s health issues, including the right to an abortion, may have been the combustible fuel that ignited the firestorm, and social media the conduit that caused the inferno, the real issue was one of brand ownership. The brand advocates in question earned their label not only for what they did on behalf of the brand, but for how they felt about the organization they supported. The millions of woman and men who invested their time, money and passion claimed a piece of ownership of the Komen foundation, which gave them a sense of empowerment in the battle against breast cancer.

For many, Komen’s decision to pull its support of Planned Parenthood represented a betrayal of the public’s immense support and trust in the brand and its mission. One study found that Komen for the Cure, as it is known, ranked second on the list of America’s most trusted charities and was the most valuable nonprofit brand in America.

Komen’s ill-planned decision also undermined perceived “ownership” rights. As professional communicators, we may seek the reward of brand advocates, but we must also recognize the risks and responsibilities of this potent relationship.

Trust is a two-way street, and the core elements of reputation are expectations, credibility and authenticity. The Komen decision, for many, ignored all of these.

Like all organizations, Komen for the Cure has a duty to the publics that give it permission to operate. And while many may debate the Komen decision and the way it was communicated, the real battleground was over “ownership” of the brand. In that regard, the public, through its social media influence, now clearly has an edge over Komen and any other brand that fails to keep the public’s trust sacred.

Michael G. Cherenson, APR, Fellow PRSA, is executive vice president, Success Communications Group, and 2009 chair of the Public Relations Society of America.

About the author

Michael Cherenson, APR, Fellow PRSA


  • Well said Mr. Cherenson.  Like all brands, the public is the owner now and always has been, a point that some managers often overlook or refuse to acknowledge.

  • You’re absolutely right on, Mike. Organizations no longer “own” their brand as they did pre-social media. In the “good ol’ days,” we were able to catch public pushback and prepare a rebuttal that oftentimes (not always, but usually) enabled us to regain control of the message.

    Those days are long gone, and this most recent (but it’s only 3:30 on Tuesday afternoon, so plenty of time for other, possibly more spectacular, cases of foot-shooting!) example clearly demonstrates the power of social media in driving the conversation and, ultimately, shaping or reshaping the message.

    Somehow I don’t think this particular debacle has seen its last public airing. The voyeur in me is sitting and watching eagerly!

  • Besides not considering brand ownership, Komen didn’t consider the credibility of the excuse it gave for pulling Planned Parenthood’s funding.  Everyone saw through the excuse as well as Nancy Brinker’s explanation for reversing their decision by amending “the criteria that disqualifying investigations must be criminal and conclusive in nature and not political.” Then she drops that story and says the real reason for ending the relationship with Planned Parenthood was to avoid “duplicative grants” to health care providers who don’t actually perform mammograms which is clearly another falsehood.

  • Really respect your take on the issue; you offer up some very valid points.  I do disagree on the initial Komen decision being a betrayal of public trust; they had every right to make the decision they did without it being characterized as a “betrayal” . . . they just didn’t realize who / what they were up against, which was their biggest mistake.

  • Thoughtful article.  Would have tweeted it but the URL doesn’t automatically shorten.  I’ve stopped sharing from sites that use the lengthy url.  Sorry.

  • […] a forum for PRSA members and other public relations professionals, posted an article by Michael G. Cherenso evaluating the oversights of Komen. He stated, The Komen/ Planned Parenthood […]

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