Handel’s resignation helps Komen, crisis experts say

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The resignation today of Komen for the Cure vice president Karen Handel is another step in the right direction for the breast cancer foundation as it seeks to move forward and win some of its supporters back, crisis management experts say.

“Her leaving is part of Komen showing that they get it,” said Michael Gordon, chief executive of Group Gordon, a New York-based corporate and crisis communication firm. “She was perceived as the cause of the mess.”

Handel’s resignation comes after Komen spent several days in the white-hot spotlight after it first announced last week it would no longer provide grants to Planned Parenthood. Komen claimed that because the group was the focus of a congressional inquiry for possibly using federal funds for abortion services, it no longer met revised funding criteria. Komen then reversed that decision later in the week. At the center of the firestorm was Handel. Fingers pointed to her as the one behind the original Planned Parenthood decision when her antiabortion views became known.


Handel’s resignation strikes Tom Madden, chief executive of TransMedia Group, a Boca Raton, Fla.-based public relations firm, as something that will “at least soften the ire that has been raised about this issue. [Handel] was at the center of it, allegedly, and for her to be leaving the organization could be an opportunity to relax some of the tensions, and I think it could be used as a conciliatory effort.”

Eliminating anyone who is a lightning rod, he added, “Is going to be a step forward toward recovery.”

Handel’s resignation letter says, in part, “I am deeply disappointed by the gross mischaracterizations of the strategy, its rationale, and my involvement in it. 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. However, the decision to update our granting model was made before I joined Komen, and the controversy related to Planned Parenthood has long been a concern to the organization. Neither the decision nor the changes themselves were based on anyone’s political beliefs or ideology.”

When organizations go through a media-frenzied crisis such as this, Gordon said, it needs to do certain things to regain footing: review its policies and show appropriate contrition. Those were done last week, he said, when Nancy Brinker, Komen’s founder and chief executive issued a statement apologizing for its decisions that “cast doubt upon our commitment to our mission of saving women’s lives.”

Brinker also needs to assure those on both sides of the issue “that the focus is now, as it was in the beginning, entirely on breast cancer, and that’s where the money has to go,” Madden said. “Some new people should be brought into the organization who can buttress that new, redefined goal.”

He added that Komen “needs to get back to its main mission and depoliticize this whole discussion. That’s the goal right now, because it is a worthwhile organization.”


[Updated, 3:45 p.m. Feb. 7: Handel’s resignation will help Komen in the short-term, but it has a long way to go to fully regain the trust of the public and its donors, said Kris Putnam-Walkerly, president of Putnam Community Investment Consulting, a national philanthropy and nonprofit consulting firm based in Cleveland.

It will take more than a statement of apology, she added: “If I were a major donor or a foundation giving substantial sums of money, I would want to sit down with the executive director and the board chair and fully understand what happened and what the decision-making processes were. I’d want to see evidence of recognition on the part of leadership that significant errors were made and that there’s a willingness to reflect and understand what went wrong.”

She would be concerned, she added, if it was assumed that an apology and a reversal of the original decision were all that were needed to regain trust. “Something went wrong. I don’t know what it was, but it needs to be corrected.”]

The ongoing flap has also sparked scrutiny and criticism of how Komen spends its money. That’s to be expected, Gordon said, adding that he thinks the organization can rise above that as well.

“I think they should just be transparent and forthcoming,” he said. “If they are not responsive or try to cover something up, then of course that will hurt them further. As we see in these situations, the truth always comes out.”

And what about Handel’s replacement? “I think the most important thing is that he or she be someone who is squarely focused onwomen’s health and not about politics,” Gordon said.