Few college-aged women spend any significant amount of time worrying about breast cancer.
But the disease is actually the leading cause of cancer deaths in women ages 20 to 39 and is often more aggressive than the form that older women contract.
The Susan G. Komen Foundation wanted to reach college-aged women about the importance of monthly breast self-examinations. It also wanted to raise awareness of the organization as a place where women could find information for themselves and for family members.
"You can go [to Komen.org] at 3am when you're scared and need help," says Emily Callahan, Komen's PR manager. "It's often young people who find these [online] resources. It might be for them; it might be for their mom, aunt, dad, or brother."
Education would be a key component of the outreach effort. Research before the campaign showed that more than half of young women don't feel they're at risk for developing breast cancer, and about 67% believe that mammograms prevent it.
"That is frightening," says Abigail Hecht, SAE at Fleishman-Hillard.
In a pilot program, the team identified 10 colleges and universities with a high percentage of women and black students, who are at a higher risk for the disease. The schools included Spelman, North Carolina State, and Rutgers.
The team also partnered with sororities and minority groups because peer-to-peer outreach would become an important vehicle for engaging students.
Telling 18- to 21-year-olds to see a gynecologist or regularly examine their breasts is a "very jarring thought to a lot of young women," Hecht says.
"It really created a very warm environment because it wasn't a 65-year-old nurse talking to an 18-year-old," Hecht says. "They had their peers there [telling them] it's not that scary."
Komen's pink trailer served as both the promotional billboard and centerpiece for education efforts. Inside, students could visit kiosks to learn about self-exams, sign petitions, register for newsletters, and learn how to get involved with the foundation.
The interactive tutorial included real women performing the examination. "It was not cartoons," Hecht says. "It was a very personal thing."
In addition, the PR team created an 8-foot "graffiti wall" for students to post messages about breast cancer. The wall touched women in an emotional way, as students left messages such as, "My mother had breast cancer, and she didn't make it," Callahan recalls.
"You'd see students standing there, sometimes two, three, four deep," she says. "It really tells you how they feel about it."
The PR team promoted the effort through media and viral outreach, including e-mails, IMs, chatrooms, and message boards.
Komen estimates that 28,400 students attended the events, exceeding the goal of 20,000. In addition, the group distributed 36,731 pieces of educational material, and 90% of attendees opted to share feedback about the event in an extended questionnaire. Students who completed an evaluation could win a pink iPod or gift certificates.
The event also yielded more than 8,000 hits to the Komen website. "It said a lot about the youth of America, who are very cause-minded," Callahan says.
Callahan notes that the educational team will likely tweak the effort, taking into account the kinds of information students want, as well as the look and feel of it. Komen is also deciding whether to expand to other locations, like malls and theaters.
PR team: Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation (Dallas) and Fleishman-Hillard (New York)
Campaign: On the Way to the Cure
Time frame: September to October 2004