Ruder Finn’s public relations campaign to educate war veterans about their risk for hepatitis C deserves recognition for two reasons: outstanding research and results. An extensive review of government documents revealed the compelling background statistics necessary to create a national issue in the public eye. Months of interviews with veterans led to a partnership of a celebrity and organizations eager and able to capture the attention of veterans. As for results, the campaign was covered by most national networks and newspapers, while enabling thousands of veterans to be tested. Public pressure, created in large part by the campaign, has brought about changes in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) health system, including proposed regulations that would guarantee VA coverage for many veterans with hepatitis C.
Rebetron Schering Plough’s (SP) leading combination therapy for the treatment of the hepatitis C virus (HCV), was launched in the United States in June 1998 amid a wave of publicity. Two years later, the public health crisis surrounding hepatitis C had been covered extensively. The PR challenge faced by Ruder Finn (RF) was to develop a campaign that would ferret out new story angles, and continue to drive for awareness and subsequent testing for HCV, the nation’s leading blood-borne viral infection.
By working closely with the SP market research department, RF identified segments of the US population infected with HCV. Niche publicity, concentrating on high-risk groups (minorities, prisoners and veterans), provided a platform for continued media coverage and education. War veterans in particular provided a compelling story because many were infected while serving their country, sometimes through acts of valor.
Educate U.S. veterans about their increased risk of hepatitis C and therefore encourage testing
Educate general American population about HCV
Veterans, military personnel, their families and caregivers; legislators; public-at-large
The Department of Veterans Affairs tested 26,000 VA patients and found that 8-10 percent were infected with hepatitis C. That rate is significantly higher than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate of 1.8 percent for the general population. Other studies have found that veterans are five to six times more likely to have HCV than the general population and that approximately 64 percent of veterans who test positive for HCV served during the Vietnam era. In searching Library of Congress documents, RF found that 365,000 Americans serving in Vietnam between 1967 and 1969 had blood transfusions, a major risk factor for HCV at the time.
RF’s research highlighted that veterans, although an ideal niche population, are a difficult community to communicate with and reach. The challenge was to find a spokesperson that would appeal to this audience. By working with third party organizations and patient groups RF learned that the then-reigning Miss America, Heather French, is the daughter of a disabled Vietnam veteran. French, already highly respected within the veteran community, chose veterans issues as her platform during her year of service.
Further research determined which current and upcoming events that attracted veterans where RF could work with event organizers to achieve a mutual goal: to educate veterans about their risk of HCV and encourage them to get tested.
In order to educate veterans about their HCV risk, RF developed and implemented a national grassroots screening and awareness campaign entitled Helping Veterans Fight a Silent Enemy – Hepatitis C. To execute the campaign, RF partnered with members of Veterans Aimed Towards Awareness (VATA) and Vietnam Veterans of American (VVA), who, along with RF staff, created a dedicated Hep C Vet Team. Terry Baker, VATA founder, was designated the team leader. As described above, Miss America was enlisted to help attract media attention. To ensure that screening was available to veterans across the country, Mr. Baker created the VATA HEP Mobile – a red, white and blue star spangled motor home. In planning the campaign, RF identified 1) cities with large veteran populations, 2) existing events around the country that would attract large numbers of veterans and 3) national media opportunities that would draw attention to the continuing HCV health battle that veterans face.
Leverage existing public sympathy for veterans to draw attention and educate the general public about HCV
Conduct ongoing media relations on the veterans/HCV issue
Capitalize on existing veteran-attended events to generate publicity
Multi-city public awareness and HCV screening campaign – Screening events held in Louisville, Miami, Chicago, Wilmington and Annapolis. Worked with local veteran organizations to recruit and screen veterans. Media outreach, with the support of French, conducted to further raise awareness.
CAPITALIZING ON EXISTING VETERAN EVENTS: Rolling Thunder XIII: Nearly one million veterans and supporters from around the country gathered in the Pentagon parking lot on the morning of Memorial Day Sunday to form a protest procession. The HEP C Vet Team worked with the organizers to add HCV to the Rolling Thunder platform and agenda. RF handled all media surrounding the event. French and the HEP C VET Team rode in the protest and encouraged veterans to get screened. VATA provided free on-site screening. The VATA HEP mobile was stationed directly in front of the Lincoln Memorial for emotional and media appeal.
NYC 2000 Salutes the American Hero: French co-hosted this entertainment event held in Times Square on July 3, where she was able to share her HCV platform with NYC veterans. Free HCV tests were provided at the HEP mobile.
The Puyallup Fair Salutes Washington State Veterans: The HEP C Vet Team worked with fair organizers to designate one day to honor its veterans. The day featured discounted admissions for veterans, a free concert by Creedence Clearwater Revisited (CCR) and free testing at the HEP Mobile. French shared her HCV message with the media and 14,000 concert attendees when she introduced CCR.
THE HEP C VET TEAM WORKED WITH VETERAN ORGANIZATIONS TO EDUCATE AND PROVIDE FREE HCV TESTING AT THE FOLLOWING EVENTS: Sturgis (South Dakota) Rally: One of the largest motorcycle rallies in the country (500,000+ attendance); Kokomo (Indiana) Veterans Reunion: The largest annual veterans’ reunion in the country (40,000 attendance); Stand Down 2000 (New Orleans): A grassroots program to help homeless veterans. More than 1,000 veterans received a variety of services, including testing.
OPPORTUNISTIC MEDIA ACTIVITIES: Father’s Day National Satellite Media Tour: French and Baker conducted 25 TV interviews; 25th Anniversary of the Withdrawal of Troops from Vietnam: RF generated top tier media interviews with French and Baker; R 1020 Legislation: A bill that would guarantee that veterans receive coverage for treatment of hepatitis C. RF used this as an opportunity to garner interviews with French and Baker about HCV; July 12 Oversight Hearing: RF arranged for French and Baker to testify before the Subcommittee on National Security, Veterans Affairs and International Relations of the House Committee on Government Reform regarding the Department of Veterans Affairs treatment of veterans with HCV.
More than 2,500 veterans and family members screened; 15 percent tested positive for the HCV virus
More than 70 million Americans were educated about HCV through an aggressive media campaign. Multiple stories appeared on every major network -- CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX -- and their local affiliates across the country. Articles appeared in key print publications including Washington Post, Washington Times, LA Times, Seattle Times, Pittsburgh Post Gazette, Arizona Republic and Stars and Stripes.