Do we have a pink problem in PR?

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. A time in the healthcare industry for awareness, education and all things pink. But what impact is this really having on overcoming a condition which can drastically, and sometimes devastatingly, affect so many people? As PR professionals, it is up to us to throw action into the mix.

Every October, we are flooded with pink. From pink cupcake masterclasses, pink fracking drills (really!), and pink burger buns to Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, being lit up pink. As visually striking as they may be and despite the good intentions, it’s not surprising that pink cupcakes can sometimes leave a bitter taste.

According to Breast Cancer Action, pink ribbon cause marketing (or “pinkwashing”) generates hundreds of millions of dollars each year. Pinkwashing is considered a “cancer industry” due to organizations directly profiting from breast cancer whilst claiming to care about the cause. It is not new either. Brands have been commodifying breast cancer since the early 1990s when the pink ribbon was formed.

This isn’t to generalize and say that the pink ribbon and breast cancer awareness campaigns haven’t done their part to help the cause. The pink ribbon has aided in demystifying the condition, raising money, opening up important conversations about early screening and so much more. However, organizations such as Breast Cancer Action argue that “pink ribbons have become a distraction” now, diverting our attention away from the disease itself.  At the end of the day, pink is not a cure, so should we be investing in it?

This is where it is up to us, as PR professionals, to consult our clients and guide them into looking beyond the pink and focus instead on what really matters: the people the ribbon represents.

Increasingly, consumers are demanding transparency and it is no different than CSR or other disease awareness campaigns. To keep skeptics at bay, brands need to get better at communicating the real impact of the year-round work they do.

For any fundraising campaign or initiative, specifically, it is paramount that brands are able to communicate openly the answers to the following questions:

  • How much money, if any, actually will go to a breast cancer organization?
  • What organizations or programs are you be funding?
  • Is there a maximum donation and has it already been met?

If these questions cannot be answered transparently to the public, the campaign may do more harm than good to a company’s reputation. Breast cancer is a sensitive topic to many, so handling it wrong could not only lead to public backlash but even to the questioning of your brand values. In reality, your brand could be detaching itself the very people the pink ribbon represents.

As part of H+K’s work with a global pharmaceutical company last year in the UAE, we had a plan to go beyond awareness, instead taking action in a simple and unpretentious way. The goal here was to provide more support for people living with metastatic (terminal) breast cancer (mBC). Our insights indicated a large gap in structured and holistic mBC support in the UAE, which focuses not just on the medical impact, but the emotional one, too. The awesome support guides by the likes of Macmillan are a far cry from what is available here, especially in Arabic, so we created a first-of-its-kind handbook to help with emotional and practical advice. It answered questions people may not be comfortable asking their doctor, e.g. “am I still ok to being intimate with my partner?” or “how do I go about telling my children that I have a terminal cancer diagnosis?”

In addition to experts, the handbook features input from local patients, and it was also translated into Arabic. The mBC handbook is now available in oncology centers throughout the UAE, ready to provide more diagnosed women with the much-needed practical and emotional support.

One person who was involved in the handbook’s development said, “The MBC handbook would have really helped in asking my doctor questions in those early days. I believe this handbook will be of real benefit to men and women with MBC, showing that there is emotional and practical support available to help on this journey.”

We also gave a platform to women with the condition through securing hugely sensitive, raw and candid patient interviews in print and broadcast. This allowed two UAE-based moms at the center of the campaign to share their stories. There was no big stunt or grand gesture – it was real women talking about their experiences and emotions. Most importantly, there were no pink distractions.

To effectively resonate with the public, a breast cancer campaign or initiative should have people’s stories coupled with authenticity and action at its heart. In a world where consumers are increasingly seeking transparency and purpose-driven brands, we shouldn’t be afraid to look beyond the pink cupcake and focus on the people it represents.

If you are currently planning a breast cancer campaign for a client and would like any support, please speak to your closest Health + Wellness practice.

by Emily Cope-Smith, Account Manager @

Please contact Eleni Constantinidi for more information.