With Lance Armstrong Sanctioned and Without Sponsors, Will LIVESTRONG Survive?
Cyclist Lance Armstrong has been stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and sanctioned for illegally using drugs by the US Anti-Doping Agency, but will the popular cancer-fighting charity he founded, the Lance Armstrong Foundation (LIVESTRONG), survive? Are we about to witness the collapse of one of America’s innovative charities due to its founder’s fall from grace?
Not all charities survive a scandal involving its founder. The charity Second Mile will not survive the Jerry Sandusky scandal – because his crimes were so horrific (sexual abuse of children) and Sandusky used the charity’s programs to groom his victims. Some of Sandusky’s victims have blocked the charity’s transfer of assets to another organization, pending the settlement of litigation, but the ongoing plan appears to be that the Second Mile will evaporate – for good and forever.
But doping is not child abuse. Armstrong is admired as a cancer survivor in his own right and for his charity’s wildly successful efforts to raise funds for research and inspire cancer survivors to keep fighting the disease. That golden effort may be tarnished, but it is not destroyed by the scandal that has taken Armstrong off his public pedestal and out of sanctioned sports for life.
Other nonprofits have looked to the Lance Armstrong Foundation, in its brief 15 years of existence, as an innovator to emulate – talking about its social media strategies, storytelling messaging and merchandise marketing. But now there are hard lessons emerging – not borne from success but from pain – these are the kind of lessons that make or break an organization. What can we learn now about how to communicate in a crisis from the foundation?
Separate the founder from the charity. Armstrong has stepped down as chairman of the charity and moved to the Board of Directors. At the 15th anniversary celebration for the foundation a few days ago, Armstrong said to supporters, “The mission is bigger than me. It’s bigger than any individual.”
Keep your messaging focused on your work – while addressing media needs if you feel you must make a statement. The foundation issued a press release about Armstrong stepping down as chairman of the board on October 17, a statement on October 10 by President and CEO Doug Ullman focuses mainly on Armstrong’s work fighting cancer, and the work of the foundation to fight cancer, and a statement on June 29 again focuses on the foundation’s work supporting cancer survivors. My guess as an outside observer, is that most of those statements were driven mainly by the need to respond to media requests. Most of the press releases issued in 2012 by the foundation focus on its work and partnerships, not the investigations into Lance Armstrong.
Focus on your mission. The public image on the Foundation’s website is about getting support for dealing with cancer and upcoming events to help cancer survivors, not dealing with the recent controversy around Lance Armstrong. The Foundation’s Facebook page remains focused on the charity’s work to help cancer survivors. Looking at posts by others – you see many professions of support by cancer survivors for the charity’s work (and one super tacky link from someone touting “a great cancer surviving foundation if any of you wish to jump ship”).
Share the stories of people you help – keep the eye on what you do. This morning LiveStrong posted on its Facebook page, Brian’s story, the story of a stage 4 melanoma survivor who loves baseball. The story links to resources that help cancer survivors find clinical trials that might help. The story continues a linkage of previous survivor stories the foundation has shared – focusing on how survivors have faced their fears with the help of the foundation.
And the LiveStrong Foundation may succeed in a new era- even though there are reports of a few donors asking for their money back from the foundation.
A Los Angeles Times op-ed asked what owners of the 80 million LiveStrong bracelets will do now – will they continue to wear their bracelets. The author notes that his friend ultimately decided to continue wearing his bracelet – because it had stood for solidarity with family members diagnosed with cancer and an inspiration for his own struggles. He said, “Its meaning is greater than the man to him, even if there’s no way to extricate one from the other.” CNN voiced a similar question with many similar responses – although some expressed trepidation about continuing to wear their bracelets due to the scandal.
I think the Lance Armstrong Foundation can survive this – as a leaner and humble organization – if it sticks to this strategy and remains focused on its mission to help cancer survivors and raise funds for researchers trying to find a cure.
Ami Neiberger-Miller is a public relations strategist and writer. She is the founder of Steppingstone LLC, a virtual and independent public relations practice near Washington, D.C. that provides public relations counsel, social media advice, writing services, and creative design work for publications and websites (portfolio). Ami blogs frequently about media relations, social media, public relations and other issues. She also reviews books on her blog about public relations, nonprofit life, work-family balance and social media practice. Follow her on Twitter @AmazingPRMaven.