One cannot help but feel sympathy for the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation. Their Bust a Move Ottawa event raised over $350,000 dollars last year. This year, with 30 days to go, they’ve set a goal for $500,000. With a track record like that it’s achievable; but for the fact that their recently announced celebrity attendee is the anti-vaccination, anti-evidence, anti-science, anti-health Jenny McCarthy.
They were doing a good job building momentum for the big announcement, which was made on Tuesday night, and presumably they had primed journalists at the Ottawa Citizen to help them break the news. The Citizen did just that, shortly after the announcement, only they ran an article with an unfavourable headline – “Anti-vaccine crusader Jenny McCarthy to headline Bust a Move Ottawa” – and then put up an editorial that was also unfavourable – “Great cause, poor choice”. Straight out of the gate, Bust a Move Ottawa 2013 was in bad PR territory and all the publicity that the ORCF and the Bust a Move event were hoping for turned negative. By the afternoon of the next day, #dropjenny was gathering speed on twitter.
The Citizen justifies its editorial position. “A health and fitness fundraiser, in service of a health-related foundation, should not hitch its wagon to an advocate for a harmful and unfounded ideology.” Jenny McCarthy’s interventions in public health have been damaging, perhaps profoundly so. An entertainer she may be but there are a lot of people who are more outraged by her past statements on vaccinations than they are dazzled by her celebrity. For a lot of people it is not possible to separate the negative aspects of her work, about which the organisers were presumably unaware (or did not think would be important), from the positive. And how will this affect fundraising? People in Ottawa aware of Jenny McCarthy’s background are going to feel quite justified in refusing to pledge when their friends and family come asking for money for Bust a Move.
Bust a Move looks like a fun, high energy event. It should be building on the success of last year and going on to greater things. But when the local newspaper of record cripples your horse as soon as it gets out of the gate, media attention turns negative, a chorus of voices on twitter criticize and a health charity that does valuable work becomes associated with antivaxx quackery, it’s hard to see how that could be possible. It’s truly sad that ORCF and Bust a Move Ottawa are in this position. It’s a PR mess and a branding disaster. I hope they can extricate themselves with honour, and get back to fundraising and the good work that they do.