Race for the Cure

The crowd at the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in Hunt Valley. (Baltimore Sun/Amy Davis / October 3, 2011)

The Susan G. Komen for the Curebreast cancer advocacy and charity group backed away Friday from a plan to slash funding to Planned Parenthood programs, but the public apology might not be enough to repair its damaged image right away.

Experts in public relations and crisis management said some may not be ready to accept Komen's reversal. The group said it pulled funding for Planned Parenthood because of internal policy changes, but some perceived the move as driven by political pressure from abortion opponents.

It may take a while to rebuild trust among people who now wonder how easily the once apolitical organization can be influenced, experts said.

"I think they are left with this shadow of doubt and suspicion that somehow they were influenced by the political process, and it will take some time from them to recover from that," said Howe Burch, executive vice president at TBC Inc., a Baltimore advertising and marketing firm.

Still, Komen could turn the situation around because it reacted so quickly, Burch and other experts said.

The organization said it decided to pull funding after a congressional inquiry began into whether Planned Parenthood was using public funds to pay for abortions. It said at the time that it was no longer supporting groups under federal, state and local investigation.

The decision brought applause from anti-abortion groups — at the expense of longtime supporters who are back abortion rights, or who thought Komen shouldn't take a position either way.

Now Komen may have lost support from both sides.

"By reversing course, they have now isolated conservatives," said Blair Johnson, a marketing professor at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School. "There is a double backlash."

Julie Squires of Baltimore said that despite Friday's policy reversal, she likely would not support the organization she once admired.

Squires, who recently made a donation to Komen, said she was "very disappointed" when she learned that Planned Parenthood would lose the Komen grant.

"To put politics above health care, to me, is really irresponsible," Squires said. "You know, we have great medical facilities here. So I think I'm going to look to find something directly in the research area here."

Michael Martelli, executive director of Maryland Coalition for Life, was pleased when Komen pulled Planned Parenthood funding — and stunned and disappointed when it abruptly reversed course. He said Komen appears to have bowed to a different kind of pressure.

"If someone thought it was political before, it is definitely political now," Martelli said.

The public reaction to Komen's move to defund Planned Parenthood was passionate and fast, fueled by the Internet and social media. Komen doesn't seem to have anticipated how people might react, Howe and other public relations executives said.

"It was the type of risk that could have made them crumble as an organization," said Mike Paul, owner of MGP & Associates, a crisis management and public relations firm in New York. "You've branded yourself for what you're supposed to be, and you have to live up to it. When you don't live up to that brand, the fall is hard and fast."

But Komen made the right move by reacting quickly to the outpouring of criticism, public relations executives and professors said. The organization will also be helped because it had developed a long history and good reputation.

"They are a wonderful organization that has done wonderful things for tens of thousands of people," Burch said. "They need to bank on the good will they have built over time [to help] them get through this."

In a statement Friday, Komen said: "We want to apologize to the American public for recent decisions that cast doubt upon our commitment to our mission of saving women's lives."

The group said it was not trying to penalize Planned Parenthood and would amend its rules to clarify that it would not support beneficiaries under investigations that are "criminal and conclusive in nature and not political. That is what is right and fair."