The Business Case Against Karen Handel
Susan G. Komen Senior Vice President for Public Policy Karen Handel, the presumed designated sacrificial executive for the Komen folks, on account that outsiders suspected she was behind the plan to stop funding Planned Parenthood (and certainly appears to have pushed for it enthusiastically), has indeed resigned from that foundation, although she seems not particularly inclined to fall on her sword in doing so. Instead she looks to be planning to make as much trouble for Komen folks as she can on her way out the door.
And, well, look. If Ms. Handel was indeed brought in after certain decisions regarding Planned Parenthood were already made, and the Komen folks decided they just needed someone who’d be happy to manage and execute the plan, then it’s perfectly reasonable for Handel to cry foul as she’s shown the exit. And as Handel is declining a severance package (and its likely non-disparagement clause), she’ll be able to rend her garments and beat her chest about how awful the Komen folks were to her to the anti-abortion crowd, which will make them even less inclined to support Komen in the future. So don’t cry for Karen Handel; I think she’ll be just fine in all of this.
But it does once again bring into focus just so spectacularly blunderheaded this whole adventure by Susan G. Komen has been from a policy point of view, and this is something that Ms. Handel, as the VP of Public Policy, should have been on top of for her organization. Leaving out any direct issues of morality or politics (I know, I know, go with me for a minute here), what’s basically happened is that on account of $700,000 worth of grants, the Susan G. Komen Foundation in just one week wrecked a billion-dollar brand identity that took decades to develop. Solely from the point of view of policy and brand strategy, it’s impressive in an entirely horrifying way. While I fully believe the Komen folks have brought this on themselves (“oh, no one will mind if we withdraw our support for Planned Parenthood if we reverse engineer this totally obvious excuse to do so!”), my business mind cringes in sympathy for them.
(There is a gripe in some quarters that the Komen folks should be able not to fund whomever they wish. I agree with this 100%, of course, and have consistently said so. I think where I diverge with the gripers is that I also understand that actions have consequences. Komen was perfectly within its rights not to give funds to Planned Parenthood; the people who complained about it — many of whom had previously donated time and treasure to Komen — were also perfectly within their rights to do so, and to withhold their donations, plan to boycott companies that allied with Komen, and to look for new organizations to support. This is what one would call the free market at work.)
The Komen folks erred in lots of ways, but from a business point of view, where they erred the most is in understanding what their brand stood for and who supported it, and for not developing a messaging strategy regarding their new funding policy that was more than one response deep, just in case that response failed spectacularly, as it did in this case. From a purely business point of view, Karen Handel deserved getting canned not because she supported (or drove) the decision to have Komen drop its support for Planned Parenthood, but because as its Vice President of Public Policy she completely failed to do her job. Komen got its ass handed to it. That Handel didn’t anticipate that better, or help her organization respond to it better, and indeed seems to have exacerbated the situation, is why she should be shown the door. And she has. As often happens when one does a bad job.