PR experts weigh in on Susan G. Komen Foundation ‘pinkwashing’

Organization called out for partnership with fracking firm

Dallas-based Susan G. Komen Foundation is under fire for its partnership with Baker Hughes, one of the world’s largest oilfield services, during Breast Cancer Awareness Month. According to the Huffington Post, Baker Hughes announced it would paint 1,000 of its gold drill bits pink to “serve as a reminder of the importance of supporting research, treatment, screening, and education to help find cures for this disease.”

In a press release, San Francisco-based Breast Cancer Action “thanked Susan G. Komen and Baker Hughes for partnering on the most ludicrous piece of pink sh*t they’ve seen all year—1,000 shiny pink drill bits.” The organization said the partnership is “the most egregious example of ‘pinkwashing’ they’ve ever seen,” noting that toxic fracking chemicals are linked to breast cancer.

As the story picks up steam in the press, Marketing asked leading PR experts to weigh in on the partnership and the impending PR crisis.

Carol Levine, CEO and co-founder, Energi PR

There is forgiveness for those who are transparent in what they do, even if their decisions are unpopular. The crisis occurs when there is deceit.

Every organization is accountable to their stakeholders. Presumably, the Komen Foundation and their constituency share a common vision and a well-articulated set of core values. Those touch points are always critical and more so when under fire, to provide the rationale for key decisions on aligning with high-profile corporations or celebrities. If the Komen Foundation did their due diligence and still went ahead, they should be prepared to explain their rationale. This will either help quell the criticism or spur a new look at the criteria they use to identify the third parties they align with, whether it is for financial sponsorship or to be the face of their organization.

Will this become a full-out crisis that will significantly damage their reputation and relationships with donors and supporters? It’s not the first time the Foundation has come under fire and it most likely won’t be the last. What matters more from a reputational point of view is how true they stay to their declared set of values and priorities.

In a research study that energi PR did this past summer with Leger Marketing, we found that Canadian patients are typically not concerned with patient groups’ corporate partnerships. Is that because they are unaware of them or because they believe they are well managed? That remains to be seen, but our survey suggested that patients are much more concerned with an organization’s ability to do what they said they will do, and to do good. In this respect, the Komen Foundation has built up a deep well of goodwill, which will likely see them through.


Daniel Torchia, managing director, Torchia Communications

Donations are good. We can all agree on that. Cause-related or cause-marketing promotions can also be very good, but they require more significant discernment. For example, to what extent does a company (Baker Hughes) wish to be “cute” about cause marketing or be perceived as leveraging it too much from a commercial perspective? That is the question in my eyes.

The slogan, “Doing our bit for the cure” is distasteful and too self-serving. I think Baker Hughes made an error in judgment to promote the campaign in that way. People, especially active publics engaged in anti-fracking efforts, are sure to be on edge when you add to that slogan the pink bits, the proactive communication and the fact that Baker Hughes’ donation of $100,000 represents a tiny fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a percentage point of their annual revenues.

The Komen Foundation really ought to arm itself with basic messaging and arguments that defend their association with Baker Hughes. Of course, this strategy must be based on truths, such as their educated opinion on the connection between fracking and cancer or their opinion on the sincerity of this partnership. If they have done their due diligence, they should be able to share it confidently with external publics and withstand this storm.


Daniel Tisch, president and CEO, Argyle Communications

Reputational brushfires spread faster than ever in the social media age, and charities run major risks if they haven’t done their homework with their partners. When evaluating or launching a corporate partnership, charities need to ask several questions.

First, is there controversy due to the real or perceived actions or inaction of the potential partner or their industry? This is a red flag, but not necessarily a red light.

For example, the World Wildlife Fund has taken some responsible risks in building admirable partnerships with companies such as Coca-Cola that are helping to conserve the world’s freshwater resources.

Second, is there an alignment of both values and actions between the partner and the charity? PR is not just about what an organization says; it’s about what it does. The partnership cannot simply allow the partner to boast about how pink or green they are without credible action to align their business operations with this health or environmental commitment.

Third, could the partnership advance the charity’s core mission in ways beyond the financial – or could it actually set it back? If the partnership provides cover to a partner that is actually hurting the mission, it’s likely not worth the money – not to mention the reputational risk that could constrain future donations and progress.

Fourth and finally, there may be times when a charity genuinely believes a controversial partnership is in the public interest. In such cases, it’s critical to have a public relations plan that anticipates concerns from credible and articulate stakeholders (such as Breast Cancer Action), and also engages those closest to the charity – particularly employees, other donors and partners – so that they understand the motives and the value of the new partnership.

It boils down to a simple question: In the mind of a reasonable person, would the partner have more to gain than the cause? If so, the only colour that should be flashing is red.

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