When a local U.S. affiliate of Gilda’s Club decided to “freshen up” its name in an effort to appeal to younger cancer patients—thus eliminating the “Gilda” from Gilda’s Club—a social media maelstrom ensued. People were mad, shocked, and sad.
Gilda’s Club is a community organization with more than 20 local affiliates for people living with cancer, as well as their family and friends. It is named after the late comedian and “Saturday Night Live” actress Gilda Radner, who died in 1989 of ovarian cancer.
The maelstrom around the organization’s freshening up began last week with a simple ribbon-cutting ceremony in Madison, Wis., which was covered by a local newspaper and later picked up by Gawker
You can probably imagine what happened next.
Major media outlets across the U.S. and Canada started to roll with the story. Shortly thereafter, an online petition on Change.org
was created and started gaining steam, garnering more than 1,600 signatures in just a few hours.
As a result, the Cancer Support Community (CSC), which merged with Gilda’s Club in 2009, issued a media statement. The two-page statement
“Over the past day or two there has been some media coverage stating that Gilda’s Clubs around the country are being forced to change their name to Cancer Support Community, the name of the Headquarters organization. We feel the need to correct the record. At no time has it been mandated that there be a name change from Gilda’s Club to the Cancer Support Community for any affiliate. The statements, blogs, and news stories indicating this mandate are simply untrue and do not accurately reflect the facts. We are disappointed that many of the media did not contact our Headquarters to verify the facts and instead relied on unsubstantiated online information for their stories.”
It also came to light that CSC allows its local affiliates to call themselves one of three names: Gilda’s Club, The Wellness Community, or Cancer Support Community.
There are at least three problems with the entire statement. It was terse in tone, did not offer an apology, and failed to include a positive call-to-action.
“I wish an organization like Gilda’s Club had been around when my late mother was battling cancer in the late 1970s,” says Eden Spodek a Toronto-based digital communications strategist. “Without Gilda Radner’s legacy, Gilda’s Club wouldn’t exist. Isn’t it up to Cancer Support Community to honor her memory instead of allowing local affiliates to erase history?
She continued: “Taking such a harsh and unapologetic stance is uncalled for and has only served to tarnish the reputation of this wonderful organization.”
So, how did it go so wrong, so fast? Here’s a look at how the organization erred, as well as tips for other brands:
Decide who you are
If you buy Tide laundry detergent in Toronto, you can rest assured that if you’re looking for that detergent in Austin, Texas, you’ll find it under the same brand name. The CSC needs to mandate the name of the organization to create brand equity and recognition of their cause.
Stress key messages
When the Madison chapter president explained the name change, she said it was because Gilda Radner’s name had low recognition among “younger and younger adults who are dealing with a cancer diagnosis.”
It’s up to an organization to create continual relevancy around its legacy. You don’t need to change the name just because a new generation comes along. Did they change the name of the Betty Ford Clinic? Should we change the name of the Lincoln Memorial because he hasn’t been around for awhile? Just who was Johns Hopkins anyway?
Don’t write in the heat of the moment
The CSC’s media statement has an angry and accusatory tone blaming media for not calling its headquarters. Most media outlets called local Gilda’s Club affiliates, likely because they had no idea what “headquarters” was. Why? See point No. 1 about determining a name brand.
Even if the CSC wasn’t at fault, there is an element of contrition here. “We apologize for the confusion, but …”
Despite the media statement, the story continued to roll on the wires days after it caught fire online, which is something any organization hopes to avoid. The main story line of “phasing out Gilda’s name” remains prevalent and what’s worse, there’s often no mention of the media statement.
By employing solid communication practices, making a definitive decision around branding, and engaging a third party or external agency to plan and review messaging, this organization could begin to regain its footing and put this incident behind it.
Elissa Freeman is a PR veteran with more than 20 years of experience. You can follow her on Twitter at elissaPR.