INTERVIEW: Ellen Barry, New PR Brand Champion for LIVESTRONG

livestrong mantra

Last week, we brought you a story on the brand re-awakening of a known advocacy team based in Austin known as LIVESTRONG.

Oh sure, you may have heard about the place. And you may recall the tumult caused by its founder a few years back. However, when you think about an iconic yellow bracelet, does anyone consider the magnanimity this organization has done (even still)?

What about the more than $500 million it raised to date in the fight against cancer? DYK 82% of those funds have gone directly to support its programs and services for survivors? Its numerous programs and partnerships on behalf of cancer survivors? Nothing, huh?

This is precisely why LIVESTRONG CEO Doug Ulman has hired a stalwart for branding and perception management, Ms. Ellen Barry, executive vice president of strategic communications for LIVESTRONG.

And that’s why we reached out to her instantly and asked for an interview. Guess what? She’s after the jump…

NOTE to all PR Pros: Ellen Barry is a class act. Given the stink-eye by most of the public (including the PR community) in its direction, LIVESTRONG could benefit from an interview sans angle or tendency to poo-poo on public information. Many flacks would have hesitated at the thought of even a “friendly fire” interview given LIVESTRONG needs to create positive mojo in the public eye.

Barry didn’t hesitate. In fact, she was happy to do it. The questions below are far from a grill session, but her answers prove she means business. There is strategy in these talking points, as well as a clear direction for LIVESTRONG to get on its bike again and start riding … strong. Good answers for sure. Good times indeed!

1. LIVESTRONG’s primary obstacle could be two-fold: Overcoming the stigma from Lance Armstrong’s fall from grace and earning the trust of donors. What is the PR strategy to do that? 

livestrong handsIt sounds simplistic, but if we stay true to our mission to continue to help improve the lives of people affected by cancer today, we will succeed. One of the things we are doing now is advancing the idea of patient-centered cancer care.

That is a necessary and important focus for the organization. LIVESTRONG is unique in that for 17 years we have been listening to cancer patients and survivors and using their voices to build programs and tools that serve their needs. That will not change.

Staying focused on the cancer patient, survivor, and caregiver, letting everyone battling cancer know that he or she is not alone and that their fight is our fight is how we will succeed. There is no magic bullet – just dedication to the mission and hard work.

2. Although jobs have finally recovered from the recession, the economy is still not what it was today. How does LIVESTRONG speak to people who may be experiencing donor fatigue or barely getting by? 

livestrong testimonialsAll nonprofits are challenged by the new realities of the economy. In fact, 82 percent of the monies donated to LIVESTRONG go to programs. Last year, we helped 325,000 people directly and look to do the same this year. We are dedicated to serving the cancer patient, survivor and caregiver. We are transparent about how our donor dollars are used and we are very grateful for every dollar we receive.

3. LIVESTRONG has an amazing track record of raising money for cancer research programs, advocacy, and public policy. What is the future for this proud organization? More of the same or a more finite approach to establishing awareness? 

the big cLIVESTRONG is a unique organization in that we deal directly with the patients, survivors, and caregivers. We also use technology to ensure that we reach as many people as possible. For example, we recently launched a social innovation challenge, The Big C, and received entries from more than 30 countries. The challenge is for entrepreneurs to use new technology and tools to create products and services for those facing cancer.

Technology is a great way to expand our reach and we are very excited about the possibilities around the Big C and look forward to showcasing the winners for the finale event in mid-October. We will continue to think with innovation about how best to get our message out and mobilize our community to raise awareness about the challenges of those facing cancer, survivors, and caregivers.

4. LIVESTRONG will be inexorably stay connected to Lance Armstrong, that much is clear. Regardless of how he ended his sporting legacy, founding this organization was an incredible move for the assistance of anyone fighting the good fight of cancer. How will you embrace that past without allowing it to hinder the future for LIVESTRONG?

LIVESTRONG is very clear about its history and we will always be grateful for the hard work that our founder did to establish the organization and especially to raise the awareness about cancer in this country and throughout the world.  Today, our focus is — and will continue to be — on helping improve the lives of those facing cancer now.

5. How does LIVESTRONG heal the pain in the cancer community left by Lance’s public ordeal? Is it as easy as saying “That was then, but LIVESTRONG is here to stay for you?”

livestrong_foundation_messageLIVESTRONG isn’t, and has never been, about one person. Our mission is about helping improve the lives of people facing cancer now and giving them access to services and programs that will help them on their journey.

As you well know, a cancer diagnosis can be frightening and isolating and LIVESTRONG is about building a community and giving patients and survivors the tools they need to fight every day.

6. Will LIVESTRONG continue its relationship with the cycling community? What’s new there? 

team livestrongTEAM LIVESTRONG through its partnerships and sponsored events including the upcoming Philly Challenge in August 17 and the Austin Challenge on October 19, help raise funds and awareness for helping cancer patients and survivors.

There are literally thousands of cancer survivors, patients and caregivers that participate in these events and show their support and their commitment to the fight by riding and raising funds for LIVESTRONG. We embrace all of them and thank them for their ongoing support.

7. As you know, transparency is tantamount to progressive communication in the non-profit arena. Doug Ulman hiring you is a way to tell America that it’s time to move on and get back to helping people face the daily challenges of cancer. Is it that easy?

livestrong ceoNothing about cancer is easy, as you know. (PERSONAL NOTE: My mother is a three-time champion of kicking cancer in its nasty @$$!)

LIVESTRONG is a unique organization in that we provide access for free to tools and programs for those dealing with all the challenges that cancer patients, survivors and caregivers face. Being able to get that message out and to re-energize the greater community is an honor. Doug Ulman is a truly inspirational leader and the model of how a CEO works both internally and externally to keep the focus on the mission.

8. How will LIVESTRONG continue to work with Lance Armstrong (e.g., public appearances, private donations)? 

LIVESTRONG will always be grateful for the hard work and financial support that our founder gave to establish the organization and especially to raise the awareness about cancer in this country and throughout the world. As of November, 2012, Lance Armstrong resigned from the Board. Since then, LIVESTRONG has had no formal relationship with him. We have no plans for that situation to change.

9. What does the future look like for LIVESTRONG and how can America help? 

livestrong helpLIVESTRONG is dedicated to helping cancer patients, survivors, and caregivers deal with the countless issues they face as they battle the disease. We will continue to provide access to free programs and tools to help that community. We will continue to fight for the voice of the under-served cancer patient and his or her family, and we will continue to build and support our community.

There are many ways to help – donating funds is the obvious one, but also you can ensure that those who make decisions about funding around cancer services keep the needs of the cancer patient at the center. I would also urge anyone who is battling the disease or has questions to visit LIVESTRONG’S website and see how we can help those who are most in need of our services.

10. Was it the challenge of helping this organization get back to its place of leadership in the healthcare field that led you to this job? If so, why? If not, what?

Livestrong-ribbonThe chance to work with such a committed team that is focused every day on the mission of improving the lives of those affected by cancer now was the primary driving force. The other thing is that this is the most positive, can-do environment.

Everyone at LIVESTRONG is committed to the mission and committed to helping cancer patients, survivors and caregivers. LIVESTRONG is an amazing place and the spirit of everyone who wears a yellow wristband is evident here every day. It is humbling to come here every day and I am honored to be part of something so much bigger than me.

11. Lastly, what can PR professionals learn everywhere from this entire situation to help them professionally face crisis communications, grassroots outreach, and perception management? 

heart purposeDoug Ulman, Katherine McLane, and the whole LIVESTRONG team showed how an organization gets through challenges. Stay focused and don’t let the noise, detractors, and naysayers drive your message and distract you from your mission. Put one foot in front of the other and be very clear about what the organization is.

As I said, and as they said, many, many times over the past few years, LIVESTRONG isn’t and has never been about one person. Our mission is about helping improve the lives of people facing  cancer now and giving them access to services and programs that will help them on their journey.