The following essay describes a game-changing breast cancer awareness campaign in Saudi Arabia that was awarded the 2011 SABRE Best Publicity Stunt Campaign in the World and the Platinum EMEA award for the Best Public Relations Campaign after breaking the Guinness World Record for the largest human awareness ribbon.
Since His Majesty King Abdullah bin Abul-Aziz Al Saud succeeded to the throne in the summer of 2005, he has initiated a multitude of new programs in education and economic diversification that have changed the face of Saudi Arabia forever.
With seventy percent of Saudi citizens under the age of thirty, it is imperative that the focus remain on building a strong diversified economy supported by workers with exceptional education and skill. Saudi Arabia can no longer afford to rely on expats to provide talent that has not been developed domestically.
The vast majority of Saudi citizens and their neighbors agree that these changes are greatly improving the status of the Kingdom in the global market. But, there are a few naysayers who quietly object to all the change and had been quite content with the way things were. They resist anything that bears resemblance to the West and its ‘live and let live’ policy that has corrupted the morals of many of its youth.
This conflict of tradition and modernization in Saudi Arabia extends to public opinion about healthcare. Traditional beliefs dictate that our fate is in the hands of our Creator and that any illness that we contract is part of His master plan. They resist preventative medicine and pay little attention to awareness campaigns. The modernists understand that accepting our fate does not have to mean adopting a fatalistic point-of-view. They want to see breakthrough medical technologies, early detection and prevention. Such a change does not come easily; to be successful the campaign must be led by a community leader and embrace mainstream culture.
Although there are several organizations in the Kingdom that promote women’s health and breast cancer awareness, breast cancer still claims more lives than any other type of cancer and the numbers have been rising. In-fact, seventy percent of breast cancer diagnoses are being made in the latest stages when the prognosis is fatal. The acceptable approach to awareness communication had proven ineffective. Although discussing intimate body parts is socially unacceptable, there is too much at stake, we could not just let women continue to suffer unnecessarily. We needed to find a new way to communicate the message.
Motivated by her own frustration and vision for her fellow global citizens HRH Princess Reema bint Bandar bin Sultan Al Saud led the crusade against breast cancer in Saudi Arabia by launching “A Woman’s Stand,” an aggressive breast cancer awareness campaign that sought to reach every woman in the Kingdom as well as women around the world. She recruited an army of soldiers who together announced that there would no longer be any excuse for leaving a woman to suffer from breast cancer. They needed a way to get that message to every corner of the earth. Breaking a Guinness World Record with awareness rally activities would definitely attract international media coverage. There was just one problem; it had never been done here.
After four months of careful persuasion, four ministries became convinced that this cause was so vital that it warranted overriding laws that forbade public speaking and assembly, opening the door to host the awareness event of the century. And on October 28, 2010, 3,952 women and girls donned pink ponchos to form the Largest Human Awareness Ribbon, breaking the former Guinness World Record. All contributors rejoiced in this victory. Through patience and persistence they had achieved their objectives by delivering the message while embracing the culture and securing unprecedented government support. This event forever changed public policy in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. And as a result of the explosion of global media frenzy, it challenged many others to follow its lead.
Sailing Uncharted Waters
What is the highest priority for any government? Security. Without security, you have nothing. As is customary for governments in the region, Saudi Arabia has never permitted public assemblies in the interest of security. How then could we host a public event that would draw up to 10,000 people and attract worldwide attention? Some said it couldn’t be done. They told us, “Don’t waste your time.” What are they saying now?
The captain of our crusade was HRH Princess Reema bint Bandar bin Sultan. Her father had been the Saudi Ambassador to the United States and her uncle is in charge of a nearby city. These connections were very helpful but they were no golden ticket. Our entire team still had to approach one ministry after another to plead our case. We easily secured permission from the Ministry of Health and then went on to negotiate with the Ministries of Education, Social Affairs, and finally the most critical, Ministry of the Interior. Finally, with God’s help, we secured unilateral authorization to launch the first ever nationwide public awareness campaign in Saudi Arabia. The government had agreed that preserving the health and well-being of its women outweighed the risks involved in holding a rally where 3,952 women and girls would later break the Guinness World Record with Largest Human Awareness Ribbon in history.
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After we had tackled the chief obstacle of government authorization, there were many more obstacles that followed. Next was organizing the event. Because local gatherings had been confined to weddings and parties, it was going to be a challenge to find qualified personnel to safely launch an event that could draw up to 10,000 people. But as challenging as that seemed, it was insignificant compared to the directive that every single person entering the premises had to be female. No males would be allowed inside for any reason whatsoever. Although Saudi women have been entering the workplace in larger numbers through the recent government initiatives, they have not yet begun training for public service posts. There were no women who had been trained for event staffing positions available in the local market.
The success of this event, and all future government rhetoric about public assemblies, would be contingent upon our ability to pull this event off without a hitch. We had to locate and recruit qualified women to hold supervisory posts; women to train security guards; women to work at registration, and many other functions in less than four months. It seemed impossible but somehow, with God’s help, we hosted 3,952 women at an event that changed the world, without incident.
Location, Location, Location
The next obstacle in line was location. The event would need to be held in a closed space that could hold up to 10,000 people and would be completely concealed from the view of passers-by. The raceway was available, but wide open. The local university stadium was large enough, but wasn’t secured. The manager of one location wanted to be paid in order to cooperate.
Another location seemed perfect but it was mysteriously not available. Yet another location seemed suitable at first but it was then decided that it was too close to tall buildings which would risk office workers having a view of all the action. Finally, the Ministry of Education Sports Stadium, which no woman had ever entered before, was designated to hold the event. There was one condition though, we had to replace the urinals with proper ladies’ restrooms; a small price to pay for the significance of this event.
This Business Can Get Ugly
We fully expected some resistance from the public considering that we were talking about breasts in a culture where the dimensions of every woman’s body are distorted by a sea of black fabric. For this reason we did not use graphic images of breasts in our printed materials and our expert spokeswomen carefully worded all of our communications, speaking to them as if it were one woman speaking to another. We provided plain facts about breast cancer and its detection.
In addition, we extended an invitation to the event on October 28, 2010 stating its purpose, location, timing and especially that it was only open to females. Because we used SMS and email to deliver this invitation, which is a very personal mode of communication here, we experienced some harsh backlash from a few individuals.
After informing Princess Reema of the calls that threatened bodily harm and even death, we were quickly put in touch with the Ministry of the Interior who investigated the offenders and prosecuted them accordingly. We were then able to complete our objectives unscathed.
The results of “A Woman’s Stand” far exceeded all expectations. It was for this cause that we were able to obtain full-fledged support from the Kingdom to hold the first public assembly in its history. The significance of this event cannot be overstated. Historically perceived as misogynistic, Saudi Arabia took a strong stand to prove that the health and wellbeing of women is among its highest priorities. Furthermore, this decision was not made by one person but through the coordinated efforts of multiple figures of authority, proving that this concern is characteristic of the government and its people.
The campaign itself changed the world. It captivated viewers worldwide as 3,952 girls and women broke the Guinness World Record for the Largest Human Awareness Ribbon. The phenomenal media attention from this event spread the news across the globe. Major media outlets used it as the subject of special reports which highlighted breast cancer awareness efforts among Arab nations. This comparison challenged Saudi Arabia’s neighbors to compete with one another in their efforts, multiplying our results.
But perhaps the most significant change happened among the citizens of Saudi Arabia who were forced to stand back and take notice. It was indeed a remarkable event to see thousands of women gathering together in one location to celebrate their unity. Surely each and every one of them will remember October 28, 2010 for the rest of their lives. The topic of breast cancer prevention will forever be part of them. This is the change that will save lives, and it makes every endless hour that went into making it happen worthwhile. A new day has dawned in the Kingdom and all around the world.