Susan Carter can certainly identify with the communications challenges that the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation faced during its early years. But at the time, the now-director of communications for the organization was on the opposite side of the PR/journalist relationship.
Soon after graduating from college, she and a couple of friends started a community newspaper in Dallas. One day in 1982, upon covering Komen's first event, Carter returned to her office and realized there was a problem.
"I recall going back, sitting down with the editor, and trying to figure out how to write the story without using the words 'breast cancer,'" she says. "That's where we were back then. It blows me away."
In her 15 years working with Komen, Carter, who is certain to be busy this month inasmuch as October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, has definitely noticed an improvement in public awareness and media's willingness to report on the disease. And almost 25 years after its humble beginnings, Komen is the largest source of funding for breast cancer research outside of the US government. It is certainly one of the most recognized names associated with the fight. Yet, Carter says, there is still plenty of work to be done when it comes to communications.
"The challenges have changed dramatically," she says. "It used to be just to get people to try and talk about it. [Today,] it's the number one health concern of women."
Because of the prominence of breast cancer in the media, the communications team plays a key part in helping Komen maintain its thought-leadership position in that arena, especially when new research findings are released.
"The media and public look to Komen to help understand what that means to them," Carter says.
"Communications are a very important part of what we do," says Nancy Brinker, Komen's founder. "If we don't tell the public what we do... and communicate the right messages, we can't do our work because we always have to be credible to our community. We have to verify the results that we're getting, inspire people, and lead. The only way to do that is to communicate.
"Susan has put years of effort into this," adds Brinker. "[She] understands how important relationships are. She's willing to walk the walk and not just talk about it."
Because Komen addresses the whole spectrum of breast cancer - from education to emotional support to fundraising - getting a clear, concise message about what the organization does is a constant challenge, Carter says. And while Komen's messages have remained consistent over its history, the new-media environment presents new opportunities to get the word out about breast cancer and Komen.
"The Internet just increases the issue in countries far outside our borders," Carter says. "It's added a whole new level of complexity to what we put out there."
The Web also plays an important part in Komen's strategy to reach and engage the next generation in the fight against the disease.
"We say that we want to try to reach everybody where they live, work, and play. And that online space for young women and men is of key importance for us," she says. "The earlier we can help a young woman see the relevance, the sooner she'll start to become familiar with her body and recognize changes should they occur."
Over the past 25 years, the number of women who get regular mammograms has increased from just 30% to 75%. Statistics like that, Carter says, help her think that Komen has played a significant part in "moving the needle" in the fight against the disease.
"I'm probably one of the luckiest individuals," she says, adding that her team gets regular feedback from those who've been affected by Komen's work.
"You know that you're impacting lives," she says. "It's a very different environment when you're working and you're actually contributing to the greater good."
Director of communications, Susan G. Komen Foundation
Cofounder, Carter & Associates (PR, marketing, and special events)
People Newspapers, Dallas