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Maryland native at center of Komen controversy steps down

The resignation of Maryland native Karen Handel from theSusan G. Komen for the Curefoundation on Tuesday could be a first step toward the organization's recovery from a week of negative headlines, comments and tweets.

But crisis communications experts say Handel's departure alone won't be enough to restore the goodwill the breast cancer-fighting foundation has lost.


Consultant Jeremy Robinson-Leon says Handel's insistence that the decision to pull funding from Planned Parenthood last week was well thought out and approved by the foundation board raises more questions.

"They were looking for someone to take ownership," Robinson-Leon, principal at the New York crisis communications firm Group Gordon, said of Handel's resignation. "I am not sure it will put criticism to rest. …


"Until they explain to the public how and why the decision was made, I think they can't get past it."

The foundation's announcement last week that it was withholding funding from Planned Parenthood for breast cancer screening and other health services for low-income women unleashed a barrage of criticism in public and online.

Planned Parenthood also performs abortions, making it a cause for supporters of abortion rights and a target of those who oppose the procedure. The Komen money was not used to fund the procedure, and foundation officials say abortion politics played no part in the decision.

Amid the public outcry over the funding decision, the Komen foundation apologized and reversed itself, saying Planned Parenthood would remain eligible to apply for its grants.

At the center of the controversy has been Karen Walker Handel, who grew up in Upper Marlboro and graduated in 1980 from Frederick Douglass High School.

A Republican former secretary of state in Georgia, the 49-year-old Handel had called for Planned Parenthood to be defunded while seeking the GOP gubernatorial nomination in 2010.

Handel joined the Komen foundation last year as senior vice president for policy. She has said the Planned Parenthood decision had nothing to do with abortion.

"I am deeply disappointed by the gross mischaracterizations of the strategy, its rationale, and my involvement in it," she wrote in a letter Tuesday to foundation founder and CEO Nancy G. Brinker. "I openly acknowledge my role in the matter and continue to believe our decision was the best one for Komen's future and the women we serve."


Handel noted that the foundation board supported the decision. The board voted in December to cut funding for 17 of its 19 Planned Parenthood affiliates.

The foundation has said little about the discussions that led to the decision to change its funding criteria — or the internal reaction to the fallout.

Brinker did not give a reason for Handel's resignation in the statement she issued Tuesday.

"I have known Karen for many years, and we both share a common commitment to our organization's lifelong mission, which must always remain our sole focus," Brinker said in the statement. "I wish her the best in future endeavors."

Brinker said Handel was not the architect of the decision to stop sending donors' money to Planned Parenthood.

It is not clear whether Handel was pressured or forced to resign.


Handel told Fox News she resigned because it was clear she had become "too much of a focal point."

Brinker said the foundation takes responsibility for recent "mistakes." She said she does not want the flap to distract from the organization's work. "Susan G. Komen for the Cure's mission is the same today as it was the day of its founding: to find a cure and eradicate breast cancer," she said.

Robinson-Leon, the crisis communications consultant, said the foundation must answer the lingering questions before the organization can move forward.

He said its leaders must focus now on what's central to the mission and reassure its army of donors, volunteers and supporters that their decisions are not motivated by culture-war politics.

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Amy Bree Becker, a professor of communications at Towson University, said Handel's departure will help the organization refocus its efforts.

The Komen controversy is not the first case when public outcry through social media has led to policy decision changes, Becker said, but it is one of the most significant in recent memory.


As for Handel, Becker said, she is more likely to find a job with a conservative lobbying group than back in breast cancer advocacy.

"I think she will be too hot to handle for a lot of breast cancer research organizations for a while," Becker said.

Reuters contributed to this report.