Gilda’s Club: What went wrong?

This is a guest post from Elissa Freeman.

A public outcry over the removal of Gilda Radner’s name from the iconic cancer support group has turned into a public relations and branding case study of ‘what not to do.’

When a local United States affiliate of Gilda’s Club decided to ‘freshen up’ their 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.

It all started with a simple ribbon-cutting in Madison, Wisconsin which was covered by a local newspaper then picked up by the popular Gawker website…and well, you can imagine the rest.

Major media outlets started to roll with the story, including a column I wrote for, a major Canadian website.

An online petition on was created and started picking up some serious steam, garnering more than 1600 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. In this poorly written missive, it came to light the CSC allows its local affiliates to call themselves one of three names (Gilda’s Club, The Wellness Community, or Cancer Support Community).

My main issues with the statement?

  • Terse in tone
  • No apology
  • No 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 honour her memory instead of allowing local affiliates to erase history? Taking such a harsh and unapologetic stance is uncalled for and has only served to tarnish the reputation of this wonderful organization,” says Spodek.

So, how did it go so wrong, so fast?

  1. Decide who you are If you buy Tide in Toronto, you can be rest assured that if you’re looking for that same 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.
  2.  No Key Messages  When the Madison chapter president explained the organizational 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.” Wrong. If you’re going to allow local affiliates to name themselves, give them appropriate messages in case they’re questioned.
  3.  Don’t write in the heat of the moment  The CSC’s media statement has an angry and accusatory tone blaming the media for not calling their headquarters. Most media actually called local Gilda’s Club affiliates, likely because they had no idea who ‘headquarters’ was. Why? See point #1.
  4.  Say “sorry” 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 continues to roll on the wires, 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.

Good solid communication practices, a definitive decision around branding, plus engaging a third party or external agency to strategically plan and review messaging, could potentially put this organization back on track.

Elissa Freeman

As a dyed-in-wool Toronto Maple Leafs hockey fan, PR veteran Elissa Freeman jumped at the chance to guest blog for a guy with the last name ‘Esposito’ from Boston.  A 20+ year PR veteran, she was named one of Twitters’ Top 75 Badass Females and Toronto’s Top 150 Social Media Influencers.

2 Responses to Gilda’s Club: What went wrong?
  1. TLanceB
    December 3, 2012 | 8:27 am

    It’s a disease not a brand. It’s a killer not a Mean Girl. Gilda Radner was not only a gifted comedian and actress but she died of cancer after raising money and awareness. Younger cancer patients should be telling these organization(s) to get over themselves. What do they want? For Snooki or Miley Cyrus to get cancer? would that help them?
    Gilda’s Club is a poker game that meets every other Tuesday night. It’s a grass roots awareness clarion to HELP people with cancer. Why does everything have to be marketed by a Ke$ha album? Who’s running this organization? Simon Cowell?
    AS Gilda’s Roseanne Roseanna Danna would say “It’s always something”.

  2. EstelleSobelErasmus
    December 3, 2012 | 1:23 pm

    Elissa, As usual you give a thoughtful and profound analysis of the pr situation; you even provide ways the company can avoid missteps, and correct the errors already made. Perhaps they should hire you as a troubleshooter!