Communications for the Cure: Susan G. Komen's PR Pro
A few years ago, Kiki Burger was a gossip reporter in the nation’s capital, hopping between cocktail parties and fundraising events with an ear toward juicy tips on Washington power players and an eye toward ill-fitting suits on local celebs.
Today, she still attends plenty of fancy functions, writes on tight deadlines, and works connections like a pro. But her current position has a bit more meaning. As the public relations manager for Susan G. Komen for the Cure, Burger spreads the word on how her organization’s work affects—and even saves—the lives of women (and men) affected by breast cancer.
As part of our Careers for the Cure series, we talked to Burger about her career change, life in nonprofit PR, and what she’s learned about breast cancer along the way.
How did you make the switch from gossip reporter to nonprofit PR guru?
I always had in the back of my mind that I wanted to be in communications. But I got sidetracked into media, which helped me understand how it works—how to talk to the media, how not to talk to them, and how to make it easier for them to their jobs.
After working for the The Washington Examiner and Politico, and getting my master’s degree in Media and Public Affairs at the George Washington University, a friend recommended that I apply for this job. So I interviewed, got the job, and have loved every minute of it since. I wasn’t initially as aware of the nonprofit space, but it’s a bonus to be able to work in communications and give back at the same time.
I thought I was going to miss the media, but I love how much I feel like I’m still a part of it. I’m talking to them daily, coordinating events with them, and working with them on site.
What does a day in the life of Kiki on the job look like?
Tomorrow, I’m going to Chicago to for a reception recognizing a doctor there who does genetic testing. It kicks off with lighting a bridge in pink, so today, I’ve been pitching stories for that. I might pitch a society reporter one day who cares about the business leaders attending the reception and a health reporter the next who cares about the details of genetic testing for cancer. They could be in the same city or even at the same paper—but never be at the same events.
Overall, I spend a lot of time helping reporters. For example, Komen put together a manual for them on understanding breast cancer’s current state and interesting angles for stories, like the effects the environment has on breast cancer. I also provide them with survivors and experts.
Sometimes, I get impossible requests, like “I want to talk to identical twins who are breast cancer survivors, one who works at a university and one who lives in Idaho.” But others are easier, like someone who wants to talk to a male breast cancer survivor and a male breast cancer expert.
What have you learned about breast cancer since taking this job?
A lot. There’s so much about breast cancer that people don’t know, and I was one of those people. I didn’t realize the extent of disparities in cancer diagnosis and care between women of different ethnic backgrounds. Not everyone has the privilege of taking the time off to get a mammogram. Not everyone has a family at home that can support them.
What’s the most rewarding thing about your job?
This is easy: Hearing from the women we’ve helped or from the loved ones of women we’ve helped. You’re doing your job in an office, and you forget the on-the-ground impact it has.
That’s the hardest part, too: Hearing about when someone loses the battle with breast cancer. There’s a girl our age who our office linked to Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, which has a specialized program for young women with breast cancer. It’s a different set of challenges in young women: How do you talk to your significant other? How do you plan for a family? How do you deal when you lose a breast at a young age? And on and on. She survived for eight years but died this year. That really hit our whole office.
But overall, it’s positives. At survivor dinners, for example, the women are so spirited, so funny—that vibe rubs off on you. How they can have that outlook on life is really incredible. It’s hard to have a bad day when you’re surrounded by that.
How did you deal with the backlash when Komen eliminated (and then restored) some of its Planned Parenthood funding?
I was new there, so it was mostly getting out the press release, manning the phones, and asking how I could help. I learned that even when you have the best intentions, you really have to be ready for anything. You have to think of all angles and prepare. You have to realize that some people may respond in one way or another, and you have to be ready for both ways. We’ve experienced it as a lesson.
It’s been two years now, and we’ve been able to get back to the focus on the mission of saving women’s lives. It was about helping women no matter what side you stood on. We’re lucky we can go back to that job.
What is Komen doing that you’re most proud of?
Some of the coolest things we’re doing that no one else is involve niche populations, including the LGBT community. They can have challenges with doctors and health care providers who won’t recognize their gender identities.
We also have a project now in Wyoming, where the average number of miles for women to get a mammogram is about 70 miles. We went in with a “mammovan” onto Native American reservations so that women could get screened.
I’m also proud of the $790 million we’ve given to research since 1982. The federal government is the only organization that grants more. It’s not as media-friendly as pink and races, but it’s important that people associate that work with us.
What advice do you have for people who are interested in getting into nonprofit PR?
You have to be able to believe in what you’re doing—I can’t imagine pitching something I don’t believe in. You can’t get your message across if you’re not authentic. Caring about my work drives me more. It lights a fire to get the message out about what we do.
Photo of Kiki Burger (right), Nancy Brinker (center), and Ashley Taylor (left) courtesy of Dan Swartz for Revamp.
Anna Medaris Miller is the associate editor of Monitor on Psychology and gradPSYCH magazines in Washington, D.C., where she's also been published in The Washington Post and US News & World Report. She is a novice triathlete, passionate University of Michigan alumna, and graduate of American University's Interactive Journalism master’s program. As someone who doesn't let even the smallest of "holidays" go un-celebrated, she's been called “a weird-stuff-o-meter” and takes it as a compliment. Follow her @AnnaMedaris.More from this Author