Case Study developed by Claudia Teixeira under the direction of Professor Fran Bernhards. Master of Professional Studies in Public Relations / Corporate Communication. Georgetown University School of Continuing Studies.
The Livestrong Foundation is a 16-year, highly accomplished American cancer charity organization that has served 2.5 million people and raised $500 million for the cancer fight. The foundation was created by world famous cyclist Lance Armstrong and was deeply united with its founder and spokesman. After Armstrong was condemned for doping, lying, and cheating, the foundation found itself on a mission to survive. The Livestrong Foundation implemented a crisis communication plan to disassociate its image from the image of its founder and reposition its brand on the people and the cause it serves. The full results of the crisis management plan are yet to be evaluated because the foundation is still living this crisis, however it has been able to keep most of its corporate partners and is going to serve more people than ever in 2013.
Keywords: Livestrong Foundation, Nonprofit Organization, Lance Armstrong, Cancer Fight, Crisis Communication Plan
The Livestrong Foundation Crisis Communication Plan
Background: The Livestrong Foundation
The Livestrong Foundation is a prominent American nonprofit organization devoted to helping cancer survivors. It was founded in 1997 by former professional road cyclist Lance Armstrong and for a long time it was synonymous with the world famous cyclist.
Armstrong created the Livestrong foundation, which was originally called the Lance Armstrong Foundation, after he was diagnosed with a serious type of testicular cancer in 1996. He went through a difficult treatment and overcame the disease, even though his chances of surviving were less than 50 percent. After beating the cancer, Armstrong became one of the most recognized sports figure. He won the Tour de France – a three-week long cycling competition – seven consecutive years and became one of the most well paid sports celebrities. With Armstrong as a spokesman, the foundation became one of America’s most well-known charity organizations. In 2003 the foundation teamed up with Nike and launched the successful Livestrong brand, featuring the iconic yellow Livestrong bracelets that quickly became a symbol of resilience in fighting the cancer. The foundation has sold and distributed more 87 million wristbands worldwide (Brittany, 2013).
The mission of the Livestrong Foundation is to raise cancer awareness, help cancer patients fight the disease, and empower cancer survivors. The organization has raised $500 million in support of cancer patients and their families since it was created. It helps patients navigate the health system by helping them get insurance coverage for treatments, apply for disability, get social security benefits and get connected with breakthrough clinical trials. They also give emphasis to life after cancer recovery, helping people get back their physical and mental condition.
Situation Analysis: The Livestrong Foundation’s Challenge
During his career Armstrong faced several accusations of using banned performance enhancing substances. He fiercely denied all charges, even under oath, and prosecuted his accusers. However, an investigation of the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) found him guilty of using prohibited drugs throughout his career. USADA stripped Armstrong of his Tour the France titles in October 2012, and he was also banned for life from any official sporting competition. He lost all his sponsors, which for years fought to have their brand associated with the most successful cyclist in history. Nike, Anheuser-Bush, Oakley, Trek, Giro, all of them announced the disassociation with Armstrong soon after the USADA decision. Armstrong’s reputation was destroyed but he still continued denying the charges until he publicly confessed to be guilty in an extensive interview to Oprah Winfrey that was broadcasted in two parts on Jan. 17 and 18 of 2013.
The Livestrong foundation was synonymous with Armstrong, and when he fell from grace under the public’s eyes for doping, cheating and lying the image of the foundation also suffered. Tweets with taglines #LieStrong and #LiveWrong started flooding in. The media began raising the possibility that the foundation might not live on after the scandal, and an article from the New York Times entitled ‘Armstrong’s Business Brand, Bound Tight With His Charity’ (Saul, 2012) accused Armstrong of using the foundation to his own benefit. Many people felt that if Armstrong was capable of using prohibited substances to improve his performance in sports, misleading the public for years, maybe the organization could also be flawed.
The Livestrong Foundation decided it would neither run, nor hide. Rather it would take a standpoint and implement a crisis management plan in order to survive the Armstrong scandal. It hired the Glover Park Group, a strategic communications firm, and implemented a pro-active communication campaign to face the crisis. Together they decided to use the publicity, even though it was bad publicity, as an opportunity to tell the foundation’s story. It was necessary to use this window to get the message out and share its story more boldly than ever. It was necessary to tell people that the mission of the foundation was too important for it not to live on (Brittany, 2013).
The main business objective of the campaign was to guarantee the income flow of the Livestrong Foundation for it to continue offering free service for cancer patients. The Livestrong Foundation’s budget comes from three sources in equal parts: Corporate and licensing partners; events; and general fundraising (O’Connell, 2013). The Livestrong Foundation needed to develop a strong brand, based on its noble mission, to continue attracting donations.
Most of the Livestrong Foundation’s corporate partners were also Armstrong’s sponsors. These sponsors had left Armstrong after the USADA sentence, but continued to support the foundation. However, to keep these partnerships for the long run, it was necessary to show these partners that the Livestrong Foundation could be a strong brand, even without the help of celebrity Armstrong.
The communication objective of the campaign was to demonstrate the foundation’s integrity, competency and importance.
The Livestrong Foundation has always been a very well managed organization. It holds several awards from important agencies that investigate the work of charity organizations. The Charity Navigator for example, gives the Livestrong Foundation its highest four-star rating. According to Handler (2013) “82 percent of the foundation’s incoming funds go directly into programs, with 6.1 percent going toward administrative expenses. Both percentages are improvements over national averages for similar charities.” These awards attest the financial health, accountability and transparency of the foundation.
The Livestrong Foundation service is threefold. First, it offers free individual support to guide people through the cancer experience. Since its creation it has helped 2.5 million people affected by the disease. Second, it brings people together to fight cancer, promoting events that emphasize the continuation of life. Its quarterly Livestrong challenge bike rides and runs draw thousands of cancer patients, survivors, friends and families and have changed the stigma previously associated with cancer diagnosis into pride in survivorship. Lastly, the Livestrong Foundation advocates the cause of cancer patients. It lobbies lawmakers to address issues of cancer prevention, cancer research, and the exponentially growing population of cancer survivors (Handler, 2013).
The public was used to know the Livestrong Foundation for its association with world champion Armstrong, but now it needed to recognize the foundation for its own competency and importance.
The Livestrong Foundation was involved in a crisis of public opinion widely covered by the media and needed to defend itself in the views of the general public. The crisis communication campaign needed to immediately target this general public that needed to know the stories of the foundation and its plans for the future.
The campaign also targeted the foundation’s specific stakeholders, which are: people affected by cancer, corporate and licensing partners, donors, event participants, volunteers and employees.
The key message of the campaign was to show that the mission of the Livestrong Foundation is too important for it not to survive. Cancer is the world’s leading cause of death and people affected by the disease need the direct, one-on-one navigation support that the foundation can successfully provide. The Livestrong Foundation needed to make the public realize that the real crisis that the foundation fights everyday is to help people get over a deadly disease (Fisher, 2013).
The strategy of the communication plan was to use the media attention during the Armstrong crisis to over communicate with its publics. The Livestrong Foundation needed to disassociate its image from Armstrong and brand the foundation as a successful charity organization focused on helping people fight cancer.
The execution of the Livestrong Foundation crisis management plan focused on tactics of rebranding and actively communicating with publics. It was necessary to distance the image of the foundation from its founder and reposition the foundation based on the history of the people it served.
Branding Tactics 1 – Disassociating the Foundation from its Founder
The first step to distance the Livestrong Foundation from Armstrong was to change its name and logo. The foundation legally changed its name from Lance Armstrong Foundation to Livestrong Foundation and prominently added the word ‘foundation’ to the company logo (Figure 1).
According to Miller (2013), the positioning of the bars in the new logo suggested forward and dynamic movement. In addition, the word foundation added the meaning that there are many people supporting the organization. It also conveys the message that the Livestrong brand supports the Livestrong Foundation, thus ultimately helping people going through cancer.
Figure 1. Livestrong Foundation new logo.
Source: Livestrong Foundation website.
The second step of the disassociation strategy was Armstrong’s resignation as chairman and later severance of all ties with the foundation’s board of directors and decision-making process. Armstrong is still one of the biggest single donors and an important part of the history of the foundation but he does not have any part in the administration of the organization.
The foundation also took other steps to distance its image from Armstrong. It moved its ‘call-to-action’ day from the anniversary of Armstrong’s cancer diagnosis to May 17, which is the day its yellow wristbands were introduced. The ‘call-to-action’ day is a day in which the Livestrong Foundation promotes global, collective action in the fight against cancer. It also removed Armstrong’s yellow jerseys, which he wore to conquer its seven Tour the France victories, from the walls at the foundation’s headquarters (O’Connell, 2013). In addition, the Livestrong Foundation website underwent changes. Among them, the ‘Our Founder’ page now features Armstrong’s cancer diagnosis and his many contributions to the cause, but his cycling career is no longer mentioned (Bettison, 2012).
Branding Tactics 2 – Reposition the Foundation Around the People it Serves
After taking the immediate actions to distance its image from Armstrong, the Livestrong Foundation refocused its entire marketing and communication strategy around the people it serves. It created a campaign with the tagline #FightWithUs featuring stories of people helped by the foundation.
According to Doug Ulman, CEO of the Livestrong Foundation in Fisher (2013) “you can’t get more powerful than real-life third party stories.” Survivors talked poignantly in video and written testimonials. In one video a woman named Sarah spoke about how she survived breast cancer twice and had to remove her ovaries, but still desperately wanted children. Livestrong helped her through her journey and she eventually had a child through In Vitro Fertilization (Fisher, 2013)
Still according to Fisher (2013), Livestrong is launching a new campaign with Nike that will feature the faces of cancer survivors using the tagline #FightWithUs.
Livestrong Foundation’s team was involved in all the process of the crisis communication plan. There was only one message being spoken repeatedly by everybody associated with the organization.
According to Ulman in O’Connell (2013), “the healing had to start from the inside.” Staff meetings went from once a month to more than one per week. There were short and longer meetings to get everybody together on a regular basis to let people talk, ask questions, share their feelings.
Internal communications kept the team focused and united and employees willingly participated in videos posted on the foundation’s blog declaring their love for the cause and for the Livestrong Foundation.
The Livestrong Foundation took advantage of the press momentum created by the Armstrong scandal and used several communication tactics to convey the message that it was on a survival mission. The foundation constantly issued written statements, press releases and open letters, showing disassociation with Armstrong, responding to criticisms, restating the foundation’s vision, mission and accomplishments. Many of these documents were picked up by journalists and featured on major media channels.
The foundation’s CEO took the lead to communicate proactively and was constantly available for interviews, conferences and talks. He also called the foundation’s partners telling them it needed their support more than ever and constantly emailed the foundation’s stakeholders.
As the Armstrong interview with Oprah aired, the charity released a public statement saying that it was disappointed in the choice Armstrong had made, but grateful for everything he had done to make Livestrong possible. The statement also made clear that the organization was about the people it served – not the person who created it.
The online communications strategies were also a crucial part of the Livestrong Foundation crisis communication plan. The #FightWithUs campaign message was present at the foundation website, blog, Facebook page and Twitter account.
Along with the habitual news on cancer, helpful information for cancer patients, and news on events, the blog also portrayed survival stories, corporate information, statements and speeches. There was also a new series of videos called ‘Our Voice’ which showed employees talking about the importance of the foundation and its cause.
The motto for the Twitter and Facebook posts was to make them shareable, to encourage supporters to share their love for the organization with the tagline #FightWithUs. The next day after Armstrong’s interview with Oprah, the Livestrong Foundation posted a graphic to Facebook letting people know that “Livestrong isn’t about one person, it’s about the millions of people facing cancer who need support as they fight the toughest battle of their lives.” This graphic has been shared more than 15,000 times. (SXSW, 2013)
The Livestrong Foundation is still in the process of managing this communication crisis and rebranding. According to Ulman, quoted in Panepento (2013), the organization is “still in the middle of this, and the hard part is you don’t know how long it’s going to last. It’s going to be challenging for the next few months – maybe for the next year or two.”
The foundation is increasing investment in services and will help more people than ever in 2013. It has been actively searching to increase its donors’ base and it will evaluate its efforts in a few months (Panepento, 2013).
However, the Livestrong Foundation is surviving and becoming an example of how to overcome a crisis. It has been presenting highly acclaimed talks about its crisis communication survival plan, such as Ulman’s presentation on the South by Southwest (SXSW) conference on March 2013 in Austin, Texas. In addition, the foundation’s crisis communication plan was selected as a finalist for the 2013 Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) prestigious Silver Anvil Awards. The winners have not been announced yet, however the Livestrong Foundation is already being described as a notable finalist on the PRSA website.
The Livestrong Foundation has a noble mission and delivers a great service to the world. It is an example of a well-managed charity organization that has been able to grow and reach the scale needed to face a huge world problem such as cancer. Armstrong’s determination, fame and charisma were certainly crucial for the organization to reach the size and importance it has today. However, the foundation now has to stand on its own and it depends on the support of its publics.
The Livestrong Foundation implemented a well-planned and well-executed crisis management strategy and hopefully it will be capable to keep growing and become brand grounded on its valuable mission. The world is a better place with the presence of this noble organization.
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