Doug Ulman: Mining public opinion to weather a crisis

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Doug Ulman, President and chief executive officer, The Livestrong Foundation

Doug Ulman,
President and chief executive officer, The Livestrong Foundation

Straight to the big question: How’s business? A year after Lance Armstrong resigned in disgrace, can you describe the fallout of the doping scandal on Livestrong’s operations?

There is one silver lining to all the exposure. We are reaching more people than ever before. Use of our toll-free hotline and our online outreach service, for example, has grown 21 percent year-on-year. And, more people understand what we do. So in those terms of impact at least, we continue to grow. The challenge though is driving revenue out of that increased impact. That’s been extremely difficult this year. And I think 2014 will be difficult too. Revenue in 2013 will be lower, probably by 30 percent. To be honest, I thought it would be even worse.

A 30 percent revenue drop would sink most young organizations in your field. How does that affect future planning?

I’m trying to determine what the new normal is. I look at the revenue data every week. I believe I’ll have a better handle on the new normal once we can chart our contributions and grants for the current fiscal year, from July 1, 2013 to June 30, 2014. That figure will be what we benchmark against going forward. I can tell you this: we’ve gone through the worst of it.

What makes you say that?

We really wanted to understand why someone would go online and donate, say, $500 to an organization that’s dealing with a major crisis. We asked all our first-time contributors, either over the phone or via e-mail, “Why did you get involved? Why now?” The response was powerful. They told us it’s because they knew someone who was served directly by Livestrong, or they knew someone with the disease, or that they believed the organization shouldn’t suffer as a result of what’s gone on with Lance. It took us about six months from those early chaotic days to understand our level of public support. Only after that was established could we make important business decisions. We sat down and assessed everything: our assets, revenues, resources, and our unique positioning. We’re finally at a point where we can say, ‘Let’s forget about everything else in the past, and plan what we believe we can accomplish.’

Looking back, what was one of the smartest decisions you made to weather the crisis?

The board and management team decided early on, amid all the uncertainty, not to scale back on programs or services. Had we done so, it would have become a self-fulfilling and dooming prophecy. The reality is the more people you can serve, the more people who are going to be out there telling your story. If somebody’s talking about how Livestrong helped them get a clinical trial, or how Livestrong helped them with financial assistance, or how Livestrong helped them bank their sperm and have kids after cancer, that’s powerful. All the advertising budget in the world can’t create ads like that.

What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned?

One of our biggest challenges had been that Lance’s personal story and the brand Livestrong overshadowed the organization. People knew the mission was about fighting cancer and they knew Lance started it. But if you prodded them, they didn’t know whether the foundation was about cancer research or cancer support. So when the crisis first broke, one of our strategic advisors came to me and said, ‘You’ve got to do every interview you can. Everybody is paying attention. You have this one opportunity to talk about what it is you do and why it’s so important.’ It was the last thing I wanted to do. I can’t even begin to describe how difficult it was. I could not sleep the night before a big interview. But I did it. It was the best advice I received. In a crisis situation, I now believe there’s no such thing as over-communicating.

Even during the height of the crisis, you and your team were all personally very active on Twitter. Given what you’ve been through, do you think today’s business leaders can afford to shun social?

I think the days of the silent CEO are over. People demand authenticity and transparency, and they demand it in real time. Business leaders must live up to this new standard. And I say that as someone who was totally skeptical about social up until about 2008. That’s when my digital marketing team convinced me to start using Twitter. In a short span, social has totally changed our business, and how we operate, for the better.

How did social help during the crisis?

The night Lance went on Oprah, the minute the show started, we put up a graphic on our Facebook page that read, ‘Livestrong isn’t about one person, it’s about millions of people fighting cancer. Call us now for help.’ That was the most shared graphic that we’ve ever posted to Facebook. The response from our supporters and from our grass roots evangelists was one of gratitude. It shifted the focus to: this is not an organization about cycling. We’re about helping people with cancer. Twenty years ago we would have never been able to get that message out in real time.

Do you think social is a game-changer for crisis communications?

I do. Let me give you an example. It seems every time I turn on the television there’s an ad for BP talking about its response to the Deepwater Horizon spill. I would guess it’s spending way over $100 million on an ad campaign to remake the brand in the wake of this disaster. The reality is, in the past, without social media, an organization like ours, one with virtually zero marketing budget, would never have been able to tell its story. Through Facebook, Twitter and other targeted online forums we can reach our core audience. It’s a cost-effective way for us to give them confidence that the organization is moving forward. Having a strong social presence has helped us build the organization and, to a certain extent, it’s really insulated the organization in many ways during times of crisis.

So, would you consider social media to be primarily an awareness/communications tool then?

It’s more far-reaching than that. Digital has fueled our growth. We can assemble and mobilize greater numbers of supporters even faster today thanks to social and mobile. This is a huge shift for the cost-conscious nonprofit NGO community. Social has even influenced our structure. Traditionally, the way you grew a non-profit organization was through chapters and affiliates. We made a decision early on that we didn’t want to build infrastructure or overhead. Livestrong leaders all over the world communicate with one another and with their own communities daily using social tools. This gives us bigger reach and results without the infrastructure.

How so?

We noticed early on that when someone is diagnosed with cancer they often post something about the diagnosis to Facebook. Inevitably, somebody in their network will then point them to us. But up until about two years ago Facebook organization pages did not have the functionality to conduct one-on-one private online conversations with an individual. We explained the problem to Facebook and they built for us the same messaging functionality you find on individual pages. Now the person who monitors our Facebook page can reach out with a direct private message saying ‘Here’s all the support and services we offer, plus our contact details.’ We will also be rolling out live chat, which should make it easier for the public to get the answers they seek. Using these tools is what brands like Zappos and other companies that are great at customer service have done so well. I want us to be in the business of providing such a great customer service experience that people come back to us and say, ‘You guys helped me. How can I support you so that you can help others in the same way?’

Is that the key then to rebuilding bridges with the public?

It may sound small, but digital has already had such a big effect on the way we operate. And it will going forward. The people around the world who have personally benefitted from Livestrong will provide the energy we need to push forward. And I think the presence that we’ve built on social media and on other digital platforms will help us sustain the movement beyond the crisis.

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