By Gayle Sulik
On Wednesday, Komen President Liz Thompson announced her plans to leave Susan G. Komen for the Cure next month. Founder Nancy Brinker will also give up her role as Komen CEO and serve as chair of the board as soon as a replacement is found, and two board members are stepping down, Brenda Lauderback and Linda Law.
The news comes exacly one week after Komen was criticized once again in a key public forum, this time by MDs who called out the organization for the exaggeration and distortion of medical information in its 2011 advertising campaigns about the benefits of screening mammography. The authors of the British Medical Journal, Steven Woloshin, MD, and Lisa M. Schwartz, MD, pointed out fallacies and exaggerations in Komen’s advertising and argued that “Women need much more than marketing slogans about screening: they need – and deserve – the facts.”
The fact is, this was not the first time Komen was criticized for failing to provide accurate and useful health information to improve the lives of those living with, and at risk for, breast cancer. The organization has also been denounced for overzealousness in protecting its trademarks, reducing its research allocations despite record revenues, profiting from a disease in the name of its cure, and putting corporate and political agendas in the way of patients’ rights and access to quality care.
By February of 2012 Komen’s decision to cut ties with Planned Parenthood (and then the semi-reversal of that decision following public outcry), sent the organization into a frenzied state of damage control. Attendance at Komen events declined. Donations dropped. Komen immediately sought advice from a former White House press secretary in the George W. Bush administration, Ari Fleischer, and hired a consulting firm founded by former Democratic pollsters to assess Komen’s reputation and identify the type of “apology” that would be most helpful for restoring credibility.
Komen founder Nancy Brinker apologized to Planned Parenthood, Congress, the public, and to Komen affiliates on behalf of the organization, but the vague “mistakes were made . . . we’ve learned a lot . . . let’s heal and get past this” storyline didn’t ring true. Eve Ellis, who served on Komen’s New York affiliate board for six years and raised over $250,000 for the group, publicly rebuffed Brinker’s apology. She said in an open letter that Brinker needed to take some “truth serum.” From Ellis’s experience, she did not believe Komen’s Planned Parenthood decision was apolitical, and she said the only way she would consider supporting the charity again would be for the organization to clean house, starting with the resignations of Nancy Brinker and the entire board of directors.
A petition on Change.org reiterated Ellis’s statement and the growing sentiment that Komen’s top leadership needed to go, citing “abuses of the public trust and failures of corporate governance (such as hiring Karen Handel to be vice president of public affairs knowing that she had run for governor of Georgia on a platform to defund Planned Parenthood; deceiving the public about the decision-making process that led to the defunding of Planned Parenthood; and misrepresenting to the public that reaction to the defunding decision, thus failing to disclose the true condition of the organization.) These failures were attributed to the leadership of Brinker and entire the board of directors. The petition, which had more than 2,000 signatures by the end of April 2012, not only called for the immediate resignations of Brinker and the board but also recommended a strong process for vetting replacement nominations that would involve all of Komen’s affiliates.
The managing director of the grants program, Mollie Williams, resigned in protest quickly after the board’s initial decision to defund Planned Parenthood. Not long after that, five executives from the national headquarters resigned, including the executive vice president and chief marketing officer, the vice president for global networks, the vice president of communications, a director for affiliate strategy and planning, and the organization’s chief fundraiser. Komen’s chairman of the board also stepped down as did Nancy Brinker’s son, Eric Brinker. Despite the shuffling, Nancy Brinker refused to leave her post and the Komen board cited full confidence in her leadership.
If Komen is really cleaning house, the organization would be wise to address the serious criticisms it has faced in the last several years, with transparency and accountability. It would benefit from charting a new direction to avoid conflicts of interest and threats to public health and to the public good. It would listen to the people on the ground who are working in their communities to fill gaps in care, include the affiliate organizations in decision making, change the conversation about breast cancer, and take action against the systemic factors that continue to impede progress in eradicating the epidemic.
Is the shuffle too little too late?
Gayle A. Sulik, Ph.D. is a medical sociologist and was a 2008 Fellow of the National Endowment for the Humanities for her research on breast cancer culture. She is author of Pink Ribbon Blues: How Breast Cancer Culture Undermines Women’s Health. You can read her previous OUPblog posts here and learn more on her website, where this article originally appeared.