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Inside the winners’ circle: Close up on the 2013 COMM PRIX campaigns for Crisis Communication & Issues Management

May 27, 2014


This month we’ll take a closer look on two winners of the 2013 edition of the Global Alliance COMM PRIX Awards: LIVESTRONG Foundation, winner for the Crisis Communication category, and NZ Transport Agency, winner for the Issues Management category.


The final submission deadline to participate in the 2014 Global Alliance COMM PRIX Awards is approaching (June 16, 2014), so take the chance to learn from last years’ winners and enter your work today, you may be one of our 2014 winners.



LIVESTRONG Foundation: Communicating with Grace While Going Mach 1

By Rae Bazzarre, co-founder of the MACH 1 Group


In 2012, the world watched as Lance Armstrong’s fabled cycling career crashed.  Caught in the crossfire was the LIVESTRONG Foundation, the highly rated non-profit Armstrong created to improve the lives of people affected by cancer.  With every new development in the cycling scandal, media turned to the charity for its reaction.  As it was reluctantly pulled further and further into the coverage, the stakes couldn’t have been higher for the organization. 


In early October, the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) released all the evidence it had gathered against Lance and the U.S. Postal Service Cycling Team. In an effort to inoculate the Foundation against further fallout, Lance stepped away from the organization. His resignation, however, occurred during a week devoted to the Foundation’s highly visible 15th anniversary celebration, which included a star-studded gala, a 4300-person bike ride in downtown Austin and a host of press arriving to cover the festivities.


The Foundation witnessed a worst case scenario come to life and our two-person communications team found ourselves in the unenviable position of having to communicate this news to our staff, our stakeholders and supporters, and to the media. In the best of times and the worst of times, we believe in being proactive and practicing open and transparent communication. And we knew it was imperative to act accordingly in this situation.


In January 2013 we learned – with six days notice – that Lance would give an exclusive worldwide interview to Oprah Winfrey. We did not know what he would say.


Before Lance taped his interview with Oprah, he came to the Foundation and apologized to the staff for the stress they endured because of the controversy surrounding his cycling career. His apology was heartfelt and sincere. 


We knew media would turn to the Foundation for its reaction and we needed to have a clear message:

  1. We wanted to reassure patients who rely on the LIVESTRONG Foundation’s free cancer support services that its doors would remain open.
  2. We also wanted to reinforce that the Foundation was disappointed and misled along with the rest of the world.


Given the widespread media attention, taking a quiet, heads-down approach during and after the crisis was not an option. The mission was at risk. We could not whisper, we had to shout. We had to ask people to FIGHT WITH US.


We retained a firm to conduct public opinion research to help inform our communications strategy moving forward. The stakes were too high to rely on our gut to guide us. We needed to back up our decisions with data.


In 2013, the LIVESTRONG Foundation embarked on a rebranding effort, as well as a thorough and thoughtful strategic planning process. Today, it is forging ahead because its work to support people affected by cancer now is both critical and unique. The Foundation remains intently focused on its mission. It wants people who are living with cancer today to be considered as important as the search for a cure tomorrow. And that requires transforming health systems to be centered around the patient, not the disease. You can count on LIVESTRONG to deliver an innovative new model for cancer care – built with, for and by cancer patients, survivors and their loved ones.



NZ Transport Agency: Manawatu Gorge Slip communications. Giving the community a front row seat to a natural disaster

By Anthony Frith, Central Region Media Manager at NZ Transport Agency


New Zealand had never seen a landslip like it. 370,000m3 of dirt, dumped on State Highway 3, New Zealand’s main East-West transport link for the lower North Island.


It took 13 months to restore access, and while our contractors battled to reopen the route, the NZ Transport Agency needed to give thousands of affected residents and businesses certainty and hope. 


There were three main challenges. Firstly, the public wanted action, but it wasn’t an overnight job. Secondly, it was difficult to plan ahead for, because events were shifting on us constantly. Thirdly, the operation was very complex.

To overcome these challenges, we:

  • Proactively and regularly communicated to ensure constant perception of action
  • Created nimble, no-frills channels and a streamlined content creation and sign-off process
  • Communicated in plain English, bringing mundane technical details alive with interesting storytelling


The communications work was entirely done by in-house staff, and highways manager David McGonigal was the face of the operation. Regular email updates from David informed stakeholders about progress, milestones and setbacks.


We set up a special email address and built a dedicated website.  We issued media releases at least weekly, along with opinion pieces in the local press.


We prepared communications in 'real time' as events shifted on Mother Nature's whim. We kept updates simple in format to ensure they could be produced and distributed at short notice.


A charity open day was organised to offer the public a close encounter with the slip. Our staff were informed through milestone emails, intranet stories, and staff presentations.


Like an old weekly radio serial, we told the tale of man battling - and triumphing over - Mother Nature. It was a unique, multi-faceted operation, but our audience weren’t engineers. We used plain English, while keeping it fresh, clear, and entertaining.  


We built close ties with the community, providing ‘hard hat’ tours, lending a digger as an archway for a charity ball, speaking at public meetings and visiting struggling shops.


Media coverage was almost entirely positive or balanced. Stakeholder survey results were more than 90% positive.


The approach has since been adopted successfully for other major transport disruptions.


Best practice elements:

  • We filled the information vacuum, which stopped rumours before they started
  • We were open, transparent, and upfront about setbacks
  • We regularly hosted media and stakeholders onsite to help them understand the scale of the operation.
  • We communicated frequently, in a lively personable way, using Plain English
  • We used simple channels that suited our audience and our tight budget and delivery timeframes.


The Manawatu Gorge closure was five times longer than the previous worst closure of a NZ highway. Our audience were not bystanders - they had a personal stake. We recognised this, and helped an entire region come to terms with and understand an unprecedented natural disaster.