Physician-Assisted Suicide Earns Media Coverage
By Paul Holmes
Death is a fact of life, but it doesn’t mean we can’t handle it humanely and compassionately. Dr. Kevorkian is drawing more attention to the cause.
Sound research and careful planning are the foundation of most powerful public relations programs, but sometimes opportunism–positioning a client in the right place at the right time–can achieve the best results. When Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the controversial Michigan doctor who has been a leader in the right-to-die movement, appeared in a shocking 60 Minutes segment last year, allowing CBS cameras to air footage that he shot while assisting a suicide, it presented the perfect opportunity to re-establish itself as the voice of reason in a debate that often generates more heat than illumination.
When Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the controversial Michigan doctor who has been a leader in the right-to-die movement, appeared in a shocking 60 Minutes segment last year, allowing CBS cameras to air footage that he shot while assisting a suicide, it presented the perfect opportunity to reestablish itself as the voice of reason in a debate that often generates more heat than illumination.
The society has quietly taken a leadership role in this death-with-dignity debate since 1980. However, in recent years, parallel organizations and personalities, most notably Kevorkian, have stolen the spotlight away from the society, putting a more radical face on the right-to-die movement. Moreover, the urgency for dialogue on physician-assisted suicide escalated in the fall of 1998 when U.S. Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) advanced a bill from the House of Representatives to the Senate to essentially outlaw the practice in America. In November of 1998, the Hemlock Society turned to a Denver-based public relations firm to help build awareness of its perspective on the issue.
Just two days after our initial strategic planning session, we were notified that CBS’s 60 Minutes was planning to air a controversial interview with Dr. Kevorkian, including the clip of the assisted suicide, that upcoming Sunday evening.
“CBS planned to broadcast a videotape of Kevorkian injecting a terminally ill man with lethal drugs,” Chandler said. “This is the first time that Kevorkian admitted to administering lethal drugs himself. Normally, he set it up so that the patients could just push a button to release the drugs that were set up by Kevorkian. Legally, it’s a serious difference.”
Due to the controversial subject matter, the segment began generating media attention before it ever aired. Chandler counseled the Hemlock Society to immediately capitalize on this opportunity to position itself as an expert resource on this topic and to reinforce its mission with American stakeholders. The agency only had 48 hours from learning of the CBS segment to position the society and its executives director, Faye Girsh, as the leaders and authorities on the topic. Working round the clock with the society’s communications team, Chandler developed a plan to reach media at the local, regional and national levels.
The agency called its contacts at 60 Minutes and offered the society as a resource for background and to comment immediately after the segment aired. It also pitched op-ed pieces to major market publications.
Ultimately, Chandler helped the Hemlock Society and Dr. Girsh secure more than 150 media placements in just five days. The society’s messages about its mission, as well as general information about the right-to-die debate, were received by millions of people around the world. As expected, the 60 Minutes broadcast created an unparalleled amount of interest in the physician-assisted suicide issue.
Dr. Girsh appeared to debate the issue on ABC’s Nightline, Larry King Live, Court TV, Cochran & Co., Prime Time Justice, and CNBC; and was interviewed on MSNBC, CNN, Fox News Channel, CNN Talk Back Live, Good Morning America, and the ABC, CBS, and NBC affiliates in several states. Print coverage included stories in Newsweek, Time, USA Today, New York Post, Christian Science Monitor, New York Daily News, Chicago Tribune, The Washington Times, and the Cleveland-Plain Dealer.