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Komen foundation's public-relations mess

The Susan G. Komen foundation, a behemoth in breast cancer philanthropy and creator of the immensely successful Race for the Cure brand, is battling a public-relations debacle.

Within hours of Tuesday's news that Komen would stop giving grants to Planned Parenthood for breast health services, donations began pouring in to the family planning organization while pink-ribbon crusaders vowed to cut Komen off.

Komen founder Nancy Brinker appeared on YouTube to reiterate that the nonprofit was making its grant process more rigorous, and denouncing the "scurrilous accusations being hurled at this organization." But using social media, critics continued to throw brickbats, calling the decision a politically motivated sop to abortion foes.

And unlike past flaps - Komen has been booed for suing do-gooders who infringe on its trademarked "for the cure" - the controversy shows no signs of quieting:

Two dozen Democratic U.S. senators, led by New Jersey's Frank Lautenberg, on Thursday sent a letter urging Komen to reconsider, saying "it would be tragic if any woman . . . lost access to these potentially lifesaving services because of a politically motivated attack."

On Facebook, critics of Komen's decision promised to boycott batteries made by Energizer, which on Monday was welcomed to Komen's "Million Dollar Council" for donating more than $1 million to the foundation.

In a tense interview Thursday, MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell - a Komen booster who revealed her own breast cancer diagnosis in September - asked Brinker why Komen recently hired Karen Handel as its senior vice president of public policy. Handel is an outspoken critic of abortion rights and Planned Parenthood. Brinker denied that Handel was behind the foundation's defunding decision.
Even Komen's own Philadelphia chapter hinted that it was dismayed.

"Like many of our supporters, the Komen Philadelphia affiliate is concerned about these changes, and we are in discussion with Komen national headquarters," Elaine I. Grobman, chief executive officer of the affiliate, said in an e-mail that echoed a statement on its Web page.

Grobman and several members of the affiliate's board of directors declined to be interviewed, referring all questions to Komen's Dallas headquarters.

The brouhaha is a shame, said Shelley Schwartz, founding chair of Philadelphia-based Breast Health International. BHI sponsored the local Race for a Cure until 2000, when Komen created its own Philadelphia branch and hired Grobman away from BHI.

"We all try to do what we can do. We all have our niche," Schwartz said. "We just can't let political or religious feelings enter in."

Schwartz said she has called Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania to offer BHI funding for any breast health services affected by Komen's defunding.

However, none of the area's four Planned Parenthood affiliates - Southeastern Pennsylvania, Bucks County, South Jersey, and Delaware - has sought Komen funding in the last few years. Indeed, last year only 19 of Planned Parenthood's 79 affiliates received funds from Komen for breast cancer screening and education. (Planned Parenthood says the money Komen gave in 2011, a total of $680,000, has been exceeded by a flood of donations in the last few days. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the Amy and Lee Fikes Foundation of Dallas have each pledged $250,000.)

Komen's relatively small contribution to Planned Parenthood's $1 billion budget is understandable, women's health activists say.

Over the last two decades, federal and state funding has paid for mammograms for poor women, so the role of charities such as Komen has shifted from paying for cancer screening to funding outreach and education programs for "underserved" women, especially minorities and immigrants.

While outreach is part of Planned Parenthood's work, the agency focuses primarily on providing clinic-based gynecological care.

"Nationally, abortion services account for only about 5 percent of the women we serve," said Dayle Steinberg, president of Planned Parenthood Southeastern Pennsylvania.

Komen said its latest decision reflects a new policy that prevents it from giving grant money to groups that are under federal investigation. Last fall, U.S. Rep. Cliff Stearns, an antiabortion Republican from Florida, launched an inquiry into Planned Parenthood, accusing it of using federal family planning funds for abortion services.

But after the Associated Press broke the story Tuesday, bloggers quickly reported that Komen's new policy was adopted in December, the month Handel came on board.

Kivi Leroux Miller, a North Carolina-based consultant on nonprofit marketing strategies, said Komen was "naive" to think it could distance itself from the abortion debate while doing the very thing that antiabortion Senate Republicans have been trying to do - defund Planned Parenthood.

"Komen has forever changed the way people will look at them," Miller said. "Until now, they have successfully stayed out of controversial areas of women's health care. They kept the message simple: save lives, race for the cure, pink ribbons. They've forever muddied that now. They've made it hard for women to figure out what they're about - and that makes it harder to raise money."

Komen may also have to get stingy with at least one other beneficiary that is facing its own public-relations debacle: Pennsylvania State University.

Komen gave the university's Milton S. Hershey Medical Center a five-year, $7.5-million research grant in 2008 - before the sexual-assault scandal involving former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky led to a federal investigation of the university.

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Source: Health News , By Marie McCullough "Inquirer Staff Writer"

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