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."
Planned Parenthood may have helped Komen in its effort to rebuild good will because it has accepted the apology and expressed a willingness for the two groups to continue working as partners, some experts said. Maryland Planned Parenthood doesn't receive funds from Komen but was still pleased by the organization's decision.
"While we were not directly affected, we are just thrilled that they reversed their decision and realized their mission is in line with ours," said ChristieLyn Diller, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood Maryland. "We certainly welcome anyone who wishes to continue supporting them to do so. We see Komen as a partner in helping in the early detection of breast cancer."
It is not known how many sponsors, if any, expressed displeasure at Komen's decisions.
Several of Komen's national corporate sponsors — American Airlines , Ford Motor Company and Yoplait — said Thursday they would stand by the charity because of its record of supporting breast cancer patients
Several sponsors of Komen Maryland contacted by The Baltimore Sun on Friday did not respond to requests for comment. Komen Maryland has counted a growing number of corporate sponsors throughout the years, including Safeway, McCormick, public relations firm IMRE and The Baltimore Sun Media Group.
Meanwhile, local Komen affiliates are reaching out to supporters.
Brittany Fowler, a spokeswoman for Komen Maryland, said the group sent a letter Friday to people on its email list explaining the changes. She said Komen Maryland doesn't give money to the local Planned Parenthood group because it has never applied for a grant. She said she hopes people will still support local activities, including an inaugural breast cancer run to be held in April in Ocean City.
"We hope people will look at us for what we do for the community," Fowler said. Komen Maryland provides $2.5 million a year to 29 programs that provide services such as mammograms or meals to women undergoing breast cancer treatment.
Critics of Komen's initial decision applauded the reversal Friday. Sens.Benjamin L. Cardinand Barbara A. Mikulski were among 24 senators who wrote a letter Thursday to Komen officials calling on them to restore funding to Planned Parenthood.
"The national Komen Foundation's reversal is a victory for women who rely on Planned Parenthood to get the breast cancer screenings they need," Mikulski said in a statement. "Politics should never come between a woman and her access to breast exams. I'm pleased Komen realized its error and did the right thing."
Rebecca Hamilton, an associate professor of marketing at the Robert H. SmithSchool of Business at the University of Maryland, said Komen can continue to improve its image in the coming months by promoting its programs and reminding people of the good things it does in the community. It also must continually remind people that it won't make same mistake again, Hamilton said.
"When people give money again, they're going to be wondering if Komen is going to use [views] they didn't know about to allocate their funds," Hamilton said. "They're going to have to be very clear about why they made their decision and help people understand whether or not they can trust them again in the future."
Reuters and Baltimore Sun reporter Matthew Hay Brown contributed to this article.