‘Irrevocable’ damage: 24 hours in the life of a Komen executive

at 02:29 PM ET, 02/04/2012


(TOM WORNER)
Around 7 a.m. on Friday, a woman in Laura Farmer Sherman’s office started screaming.

“Oh my God,” Farmer Sherman heard from the next office over. “They’ve changed their mind.”

Farmer Sherman is the executive director of the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure San Diego. And she knew immediately what the screaming was about: The national Komen Foundation’s new policy that would bar funding Planned Parenthood had been reversed. That would be the policy that San Diego and the six other California Komen affiliates came out in opposition to just 12 hours earlier.

Farmer Sherman did not believe the news. She had gotten up that morning with “no idea what to expect.” “When I got up and put on my suit, it was like putting on armor and war paint,” she told me Friday afternoon. “It’s a little scary when you come out in opposition to a national policy and say, ‘We’re not going to go along with this.’ It’s hard to know what will happen next.”

Farmer Sherman and have spoken multiple times this week, as a national Komen controversy unfolded around us. I found her perspective to be a fascinating one on a story that captivated the country’s attention.

When I first reached her Thursday it was near the end of what was, by any estimate, a rough day.

The San Diego affiliate does not even fund a Planned Parenthood clinic — only 19 of the 120 Komen affiliates do — but that had by no means insulated it from the backlash. Its Race for the Cure had lost $50,000 from two corporate sponsors; three more were on the fence. The Komen office was on “lockdown” after it had received threatening e-mails. In her six years as the affiliate’s executive director, Farmer Sherman had never received anything of the sort.

At that point, she had received nearly 400 e-mails — 386 against the new policy and two in its favor. “The good news is that people are really passionate,” Farmer Sherman said. “But let’s all take a deep breath, figure out what is really going on and then let’s figure it out.”

Komen affiliates were trying to figure things out, too: Internal listservs buzzed with questions about how best to handle the question. “There was a sense of real desperation, about what should I do, can you help me?” she said. “It was a lot of people asking for help, so we helped each other.”

As for the national organization, she got the sense there wasn’t much of a communications strategy (another Komen official, however, did note that talking points were sent out to local chapters).

“They would be the first to admit they’re a grass-roots organization and they don’t have big public relations legions,” said Farmer Sherman. “We obviously need to sharpen up our tool kit.”

All seven California affiliates, however, already had their own plan in the works: Over a Tuesday conference call, they decided they would come out in opposition to the new policy. Late Thursday, they sent a letter to California’s congressional delegation, notifying them of their position.

That was late Thursday afternoon. By early Friday morning, Komen announced that it had reversed its decision. And while Farmer Sherman was relieved to hear about the change, she says it by no means gets her back to where the week started.

“We don’t know if that money will come back,” she says, referring to the $50,000 in sponsorships she lost. “It’s going to be a hard sell because it’s a trust issue.”

“There are some relationships that are, perhaps, irrevocably damaged.”

Farmer Sherman already has meetings scheduled for today and Monday with sponsors, trying to win back their trust. “We’ve got a lot of repairing to do,” she said. “It’s like when you have a fight with a friend, some might automatically forgive you and some might not. That latter group is the one we’re trying to focus on.”

As for what Farmer Sherman has learned from the past week? That, she said, is easy: “You do not want to stir up the pink hornet’s nest.”

 
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