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Komen's Race To Reverse Course: Questions And A PR Challenge

Just three days after announcing it would no longer fund cancer screenings at Planned Parenthood, the pink-ribboned breast cancer charity Susan G. Komen for the Cure abruptly reversed course today. But the Komen foundation's actions still leave many questions unanswered — not to mention a public relations challenge.

In a brief statement posted on the group's website, Komen founder and CEO Nancy Brinker apologized "for recent decisions that cast doubt upon our commitment to our mission of saving women's lives." She explained that Komen would revise the criteria that earlier in the week appeared to disqualify Planned Parenthood from receiving almost $700,000 in grants for breast cancer screening.

Komen's original justification for excluding Planned Parenthood from future funding was that the group was the subject of a congressional investigation. But in a conference call Thursday, Brinker insisted that the foundation's new funding guidelines had less to do with that and more to do with the fact that Planned Parenthood doesn't perform mammograms.

"Wherever possible, we want to grant to the provider that is actually providing lifesaving mammograms," she said.

The statement reversing course doesn't actually address the question of what kind of services Planned Parenthood provides; the women's health service does about 700,000 breast exams each year.

But Komen has backed down on how it defines an investigation. Now organizations can only be excluded from funding if those investigations are "criminal and conclusive in nature and not political," the statement said.

Komen officials wouldn't elaborate beyond the statement, but Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards told reporters that as far as she's concerned, the organization is back in Komen's funding good graces.

"I've read this Komen statement; I think it's very clear," Richards said. "And I really take them at their word that this is behind us."

Planned Parenthood backers were also happy, but a little more grudgingly so.

"I guess I'm pleased that they've made this reversal, but it's really a shame that they made the decision in the first place," said Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo. "And it seems like the only reason they reversed it is because they came under so much pressure."

But not everyone is convinced that Komen has done a complete 180, particularly the anti-abortion groups that urged the cutoff of funding to Planned Parenthood in the first place.

"The Komen foundation did not say that Planned Parenthood could not seek funds, but that presently they were not qualified for the funds," said Kristi Hamrick of Americans United for Life, which is also a force behind the congressional investigation of Planned Parenthood. "And that has not changed."

Hamrick said that because Planned Parenthood doesn't do mammograms, it still shouldn't be eligible for future funding. "And should they wish to change that and buy mammogram machines and reapply, I'm sure the Komen foundation would consider it," she said.

But whether or not that's the case, the perception is that Komen reversed itself. And given the enormous backlash against the original decision, crisis communications professionals say that was probably Komen's only play..

"The brand has to come above all else," said Patrick Kinney of Connecticut's Gaffney Bennet Public Relations. "The Komen brand is a very well-respected one, and one that's associated with helping women and a leader in breast cancer research and treatment. So I think you need to put your brand and your mission over any criteria that was at the crux of this controversy."

Davidson Goldin, meanwhile, who practices crisis communications in New York, says Komen may have already damaged its brand by making what appeared to be a political decision.

"Just because they fixed the mistake quickly, which was the right and advisable thing to do, doesn't mean they can wipe away the impact of the mistake in the first place," he said.

And Goldin warned that just about the worst thing Komen can do now from a public relations point of view is to deny Planned Parenthood grants in the future, when it appears funding has been restored.

"Perhaps the only bigger mistake that Komen could make than the mistake they made the other day, would be trying to parse words and be cute and continue to deny funding after they've now given the world the impression they plan to restore funding," he said.

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