PR Training

Communicating with Grace While Going Mach 1 (with our hair on fire)

Discover the plan that helped the LIVESTRONG Foundation move beyond controversy.

Editor’s Note: The following guest post is part of a series of posts by PRSA 2013 International Conference session presenters previewing some of the professional development sessions in Philadelphia, Oct. 26–29. Learn more about the sessions and register by visiting the Conference website.

We are really looking forward to participating in PRSA’s International Conference later this month and sharing our experiences about communicating with grace while going Mach 1 (with our hair on fire). It’s how we’ve lived our professional lives over the past several years as the communications team for the LIVESTRONG Foundation. We feel we’ve earned our unofficial Ph.D.s in crisis management. But we can officially say we’re battle tested.

In 2012, the world watched as Lance Armstrong’s fabled cycling career crashed. Caught in the crossfire was the LIVESTRONG Foundation, the highly rated nonprofit he 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 nonprofit.

During the week of Oct. 15, 2012, the media scrutiny surrounding Lance reached fever pitch when the United States Anti-Doping Agency made public all the evidence it had gathered against him in a report, dispelling any remaining doubt that he had misled the world, as well as his colleagues at the Foundation. In an effort to inoculate the Foundation against further fallout, Armstrong resigned as chairman of the organization. His resignation, however, occurred during a week devoted to the Foundation’s highly anticipated and visible 15th anniversary celebration, which included a star-studded gala, a 4,300-person bike ride through downtown Austin with its annual Team LIVESTRONG Challenge, and a host of press arriving to cover the festivities.

In January, 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 our staff for the stress they endured because of the controversy surrounding his cycling career. His apology was heartfelt and sincere. Unfortunately, viewers did not feel that way about his interview with Oprah.

We witnessed a worst case scenario come to life. Given the wide-spread media attention, taking a quiet, heads-down approach during and after the crisis was not an option. Our mission was at risk. We could not whisper. We had to shout. We had to ask people to FIGHT WITH US.

We formed a plan to address questions with dignity and candor. The heart of the rapid response plan was open and transparent communication with donors, stakeholders and the media about Lance’s resignation and cheating admission and what it meant for the Foundation’s future.

We knew media would turn to us for our reaction and we needed to have a clear message: WE CAN HELP. We wanted to reassure patients who rely on the LIVESTRONG Foundation’s free services that its doors would remain open. We also wanted to reinforce that the Foundation was disappointed and misled along with the rest of the world. And we put a policy in place:  no more comments on any developments in Lance’s legal, personal or professional life. We stuck to the facts and shared a tightly focused “About the LIVESTRONG Foundation” document with any person who requested an interview or information.  Its contents were echoed via every channel available to the Foundation. The Foundation had to chart its own strong, independent course forward.

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. The research revealed that the Foundation’s highest communications priority had to be advancing clarity about its mission. The LIVESTRONG Foundation is about people and families struggling with cancer, not about a celebrity athlete. The research also led our team toward a longer-term communications strategy. Moving forward, a sharp sustained focus on clarity will have broad, possibly even radical, implications for the Foundation’s image, positioning, voice, communications strategy and continued success.

2013 is a rebuilding year for the organization. Throughout this past summer, the Foundation has been undergoing significant strategic planning so it can emerge with a clear vision for its future. The MACH 1 Group is working with the Foundation to create an impactful and effective communications strategy to reintroduce the organization.

So how is the organization doing one year later now that the days of crisis spotlight are in the past? The LIVESTRONG Foundation is measuring success according to how many people it serves and how well it serves them, not by how much it raises. This fall, the Foundation is turning curiosity into an opportunity by emphasizing a new direction, a recommitment to patients and survivors and showing the world that the Foundation lives the philosophy of its brand.

Bazzarre and McLane, founding partners of The Mach 1 Group, will present “Crisis Mode: Communicating With Grace While Going Mach 1 (With Your Hair on Fire)” on Monday, Oct. 28 at the PRSA 2013 International Conference.

About the author

Rae Bazzarre and Katherine McLane

1 Comment

  • Katherine McLane gave Houston a preview of this presentation at PRDay#ROI on Oct. 2 and from the surprise about the LIVESTRONG name to the accidental success of the little yellow bands, it was candid and riveting!

Leave a Comment