ORGANIZATION CASE STUDY: Komen uses business savvy in breast-cancer fight

The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation started with a small promise, but became a giant in the battle against breast cancer with a corporate approach to PR.

The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation started with a small promise, but became a giant in the battle against breast cancer with a corporate approach to PR.

If an organization ever had a heart-warming, tear-jerking story to tell, it's the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. PR provides the narration. The nonprofit's press-release boilerplate alludes to the story, which is told and retold throughout the press kit on its website. It's a tale of two sisters: Susan Goodman Komen and Nancy Goodman Brinker. Susan lost a three-year battle with breast cancer in 1981 at age 36, and Nancy vowed to help stop the disease's death toll. The next year, Brinker created the Susan G. Komen Foundation with the goal of "eradicating breast cancer as a life-threatening disease by advancing research, education, screening, and treatment in communities around the world," according to its mission statement. Susan Carter, now the foundation's director of communications, recalls covering one of the group's first events as a reporter. "My editor and I had to sit down and discuss how to write the story without using the words 'breast cancer.' We ended up saying 'women's cancer,'" says Carter, who would later push to add "Breast Cancer" to the foundation's name. "I often credit Nancy for bringing the issue out of the closet." The nonprofit always had business sense. CEO Susan Braun solidified that when she came on board in 1996 by hiring professional staff to handle many tasks previously done by volunteers. But Brinker's ex-husband - restaurant-chain guru Norman Brinker - instilled business savvy early on, and still serves on the foundation's board. Working for Neiman Marcus, Nancy Brinker learned a thing or two about marketing and PR from its founder, the late Stanley Marcus. She eschewed banquets and seminars, preferring to raise money and awareness in ways that engaged people, explains PR manager Kristin Kelly. Nancy Brinker also wanted to foster an atmosphere where people could talk openly - not just whisper - about breast cancer. "She wanted to make [the event] fun, nonthreatening, and empowering," Kelly explains. With the jogging craze going strong in 1983, Nancy Brinker hit upon the idea of a 5K run as a healthy, participatory way to raise awareness. About 800 people ran in that first Race for the Cure in Dallas. Although that race wasn't planned as a fundraiser, the annual events now bring in 60% of all donations. This year, some 1.5 million people will participate in more than 100 races, many of which take place in October to coincide with National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Loved ones of breast-cancer victims and survivors, and women who have suffered from the disease, wear special signs on their backs commemorating their struggles and losses. "We keep coming up with new things because we think that's important, but the race shows no sign of slowing down," Kelly says. Bringing in corporate America One of those other things is enlisting corporate America in its fight. The foundation jumped headlong into corporate social responsibility (CSR) long before many had even heard the term. While the foundation gets involved in public-policy debates, its founders recognized that business drives culture, and should be involved with health issues affecting employees. "If you were just relying on government, you'd never get anything done," Kelly says, adding that a good CSR campaign involves more than just writing a check - it drives consumers to act. Yoplait, for example, donates 10 cents to Komen for every pink yogurt lid mailed in by December. "I can't tell you your purchase matters if I'm going to make a donation anyway," Kelly explains. The foundation's partner list reads like a corporate "who's who" - American Airlines, BMW, Kellogg's, Hallmark, and Johnson & Johnson. "They're the leader [in CSR]," says Nancy White, marketing services manager for Lee Jeans. "They've really set high standards and great examples for other companies to follow." Lee Denim Day is the foundation's second-largest fundraiser. Donors pay $5 for the privilege of wearing jeans to work one Friday in October. They receive pink ribbon pins and information about breast cancer, and Lee gives all the donated money to the foundation. Last year, some 22,000 companies participated, raising $6.7 million. Sponsors generally fund and carry out all the PR and advertising work for their CSR campaigns, boosting the Komen brand far more than the foundation's 11-person communications staff could on its own. "The evolution of the PR function was more driven by needs from donors and corporate partners than it was to really promote the foundation," Carter says. The staff also spends a lot of time screening CSR proposals, working with grant recipients, and training volunteer PR coordinators who support its 117 local affiliates. Reporters say they get well-written press releases from the foundation, but particularly appreciate help in finding breast-cancer survivors, their families, and medical experts to interview. Keeping the message consistent Making sure the logo and brand message are used properly by volunteer affiliates and corporate partners can be a challenge. The foundation currently is working on a perception benchmarking project to gauge consumer awareness and the brand's strengths and weaknesses, Carter says. "Branding manager" may be a relatively new job title at the foundation, but Komen takes great pains to protect its brand, says Joy Rich, philanthropy specialist at Pier 1 Imports. The retailer selected Komen as its national CSR partner, and sells pink candles each fall. Pier 1 receives branding packets from the foundation, complete with logos and press-release boilerplates, Rich says. "They just give us the tools that we need to make sure we're getting the message out correctly," she notes. The foundation assigns account representatives to work with its corporate sponsors, and hosts a partner summit each year in Dallas. "The trend in cause marketing is corporations working together for the greater good," notes Rich, adding that Komen helps like-minded companies find each other. It's so closely aligned with business, in fact, that the organization has become a target for those suspicious of big business. Just as Race for the Cure season approached last year, a California group called Breast Cancer Action (BCA) placed ads urging donors to "think before you pink." "We're not against cause-related marketing in and of itself," says BCA executive director Barbara Brenner. "We're concerned that the public is not aware, when it buys a product, how much money goes to a cause, and how much is spent. No one knows." Kelly feels BCA's campaign diverted her attention from more important things, but that Komen's books speak for themselves. A board finance committee and external auditors review them each year. "I've never been more proud that we do that," Kelly says. "It's a wonderful thing to show donors." Kelly also takes issue with assertions that people should give money directly to charities instead of contributing by buying products. "The reality is cause-related marketing makes donation fun and easy," Kelly says. "The fact is, they don't write checks." Komen celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2002, and this year is commemorating two decades of the Race for the Cure with media tours, an updated website, an online "virtual race," and an initiative to educate and recruit young women. And Nancy Brinker, who just returned to Dallas after serving as ambassador to Hungary, will likely renew her involvement and bring home a more international perspective. Komen also developed a new tagline for its anniversary that harkens back to its founding story: "The Power of a Promise." "What the promise means to me is that you can make a difference," Kelly says. "We want individuals to feel empowered." ----- PR contacts Communications director Susan Carter PR manager Kristin Kelly Brand manager Chris Orzechowski In-house communications staff 11 Agencies Fleishman-Hillard and Barkley Evergreen & Partners

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