Inside the winners’ circle: Close up on the 2013 COMM PRIX campaigns for Crisis Communication & Issues Management

LIVESTRONG Foundation: Communicating with Grace While Going MACH 1

By Rae Bazzarre, co-founder of the MACH 1 Group

In 2012, the world watched as Lance Armstrong’s fabled cycling career crashed. Caught in the crossfire was the LIVESTRONG Foundation, the highly rated non-profit Armstrong created to improve the lives of people affected by cancer. With every new development in the cycling scandal, media turned to the charity for its reaction. As it was reluctantly pulled further and further into the coverage, the stakes couldn’t have been higher for the organization.

In early October, the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) released all the evidence it had gathered against Lance and the U.S. Postal Service Cycling Team. In an effort to inoculate the Foundation against further fallout, Lance stepped away from the organization. His resignation, however, occurred during a week devoted to the Foundation’s highly visible 15th anniversary celebration, which included a star-studded gala, a 4300-person bike ride in downtown Austin and a host of press arriving to cover the festivities.

The Foundation witnessed a worst case scenario come to life and our two-person communications team found ourselves in the unenviable position of having to communicate this news to our staff, our stakeholders and supporters, and to the media. In the best of times and the worst of times, we believe in being proactive and practicing open and transparent communication. And we knew it was imperative to act accordingly in this situation.

In January 2013 we learned – with six days notice – that Lance would give an exclusive worldwide interview to Oprah Winfrey. We did not know what he would say.

Before Lance taped his interview with Oprah, he came to the Foundation and apologized to the staff for the stress they endured because of the controversy surrounding his cycling career. His apology was heartfelt and sincere.

We knew media would turn to the Foundation for its reaction and we needed to have a clear message:

  1. We wanted to reassure patients who rely on the LIVESTRONG Foundation’s free cancer support services that its doors would remain open.
  2. We also wanted to reinforce that the Foundation was disappointed and misled along with the rest of the world.

Given the widespread media attention, taking a quiet, heads-down approach during and after the crisis was not an option. The mission was at risk. We could not whisper, we had to shout. We had to ask people to FIGHT WITH US.

We retained a firm to conduct public opinion research to help inform our communications strategy moving forward. The stakes were too high to rely on our gut to guide us. We needed to back up our decisions with data.

In 2013, the LIVESTRONG Foundation embarked on a rebranding effort, as well as a thorough and thoughtful strategic planning process. Today, it is forging ahead because its work to support people affected by cancer now is both critical and unique. The Foundation remains intently focused on its mission. It wants people who are living with cancer today to be considered as important as the search for a cure tomorrow. And that requires transforming health systems to be centered around the patient, not the disease. You can count on LIVESTRONG to deliver an innovative new model for cancer care – built with, for and by cancer patients, survivors and their loved ones.

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