Doug Ulman

Title: President and chief executive
Organisation: Livestrong Foundation
Size: $111.88m net assets (2012)

AUTHENTICITY: Re-establishing trust during crisis

Doug Ulman had spent 11 years helping build Livestrong Foundation, an organisation that supports cancer survivors, when the floor fell out from under him. In October 2012, cycling star Lance Armstrong, Livestrong’s founder, was found guilty of doping by the United States Anti-Doping Agency and was soon stripped of his record seven consecutive Tour de France titles.

Mr Armstrong’s betrayal of the public trust hit Mr Ulman particularly hard. Not only is he a cancer survivor—he was diagnosed with chrondrosarcoma, a skeletal cancer, in his college years and with melanoma twice since. Mr Ulman, age 37, has also given his professional life to helping people with cancer, having previously founded and led the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults.

“All the emotions were very high, and we found ourselves in quite a crisis. How do you drive the train along the tracks when you find things flying at you from all angles?” asks Mr Ulman, who is the foundation’s president and chief executive.

The immediate challenge was to communicate and connect with the public in an authentic way that would allow the organisation to rebuild the trust that had been lost. Livestrong’s viability was in doubt. Bloggers perverted the foundation’s name to “Liestrong” and some were shocked to find that it did not finance research. Sponsors backed out, revenues fell dramatically and many of the foundation’s staff quit. Mr Ulman now headed an organisation dedicated to promoting cancer survivorship skills that was fighting for its very survival.

One of his first steps was to turn to social technologies to gather data and help him better understand public sentiment. “Until we started employing some tools, it was hard to really suss out how much to read into what was being said.” Data analysis helped Mr Ulman realise that much of the negative commentary was coming from a handful of people. It also showed him that “there was a disconnect between the brand and the foundation,” he said. “It’s great that we built a well-known brand, but it wasn’t great that people didn’t know what we did.”

So Mr Ulman used his storytelling skills to keep explaining in social and traditional media what the organisation did. He continued to focus on the stories of cancer survivors. And his own story lent an extraordinary level of honesty and power to his communications to his more than 1m Twitter followers.

Mr Ulman and his team also doubled down on their mission: helping cancer survivors improve their quality of life and connect with one another. Last year, for example, Livestrong launched its “Daily Cures” campaign, which features a social platform that allows survivors to exchange “cancer hacks”, such as tracking mileage to and from treatment for tax deductions, creating private Twitter accounts to keep family and friends up to date and sharing remedies for some of the side effects of treatment.

The last few years proved that staying true to a mission of helping people, listening to people and reaching out with an authentic voice can rebuild trust—even in the most trying circumstances.

 

 

 

 

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