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Planned Parenthood Gets a Gift From the PR Gods

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After several days of upheaval, the dust seems to have settled on the controversy surrounding Susan G. Komen for the Cure and Planned Parenthood. After initially announcing that it would defund about $700,000 in grant money for Planned Parenthood-run breast cancer screenings, Komen backed down and decided to extend the grant.

The controversy focused on the divisive issue of abortion, but for communications professionals, the abortion debate is a sideshow. We're more interested in the fallout. One question everyone is asking is whether Komen can recover. The focus on this question misses other important questions -- and opportunities. For example, can Planned Parenthood convert the controversy over abortion into an opportunity to extend its brand and permanently grow its donor base?

Business consultants talk a lot about "brand value." When you think about America's iconic brands -- from McDonalds' golden arches to Coca-Cola's patented red -- these aren't just recognizable symbols, they are assets with tangible value. Non-profit organizations are no different. As the undisputed leader in breast cancer awareness and fundraising, Komen and its signature pink ribbon established a rock-solid brand identity. Yet much of that credibility, 30 years in the making, was wiped out in 48 astonishing hours. It remains unclear whether the damage can be undone.

Just as Komen's star appears to be waning, Planned Parenthood's might be on the rise. Prior to the incident, a large percentage of Americans knew Planned Parenthood solely as an abortion provider. While this is certainly a part of its mission, many were likely surprised to hear that family planning is only a small part of its overall mission of supporting a range of health care services, particularly to women in need.

Quite unintentionally, Komen handed Planned Parenthood a tremendous opportunity. In the wake of the controversy, the organization raised several million dollars -- but that pales in comparison to the central gift it received: the chance to rebrand and build a broader appeal. Planned Parenthood is at a crossroads. It can take the fundraising boost as a one-time gift and move on. Or, it can use some of the windfall to build momentum and build a permanent advantage. While it may be tempting to simply leave well enough alone, we would like to see Planned Parenthood engage a national advertising campaign that addresses the Komen situation head-on.

Here's one example: "You may have heard we provide breast cancer screenings to lower-income women," they could say. "Did you know we also provide treatment for infertility?" without backing away from family planning, Planned Parenthood has a golden opportunity for raising awareness for its spectrum of services -- and to redirect donations that previously went to Komen for the long haul.

While we would advise Planned Parenthood to undertake an aggressive PR campaign, the organization must be careful not to go after Komen directly. While Pepsi advertisements can take direct digs at Coke, the same rules don't apply in the non-profit world. The key message: when it comes to fighting cancer, we're all in this together. If Planned Parenthood successfully walks this line, it can revolutionize its brand and develop a permanently larger foothold among donors. In corporate-speak, the direct transfer of brand value from Komen to Planned Parenthood could change the non-profit world's dynamics for the long-term.

Peter Loge is president of Milo Public Affairs, a legislative strategy firm.

David Meadvin is president of Inkwell Strategies, a professional speechwriting and executive communications firm. He was chief speechwriter for the U.S. Attorney General and U.S. Senate Majority Leader.