The Final Frontier: Defibrillators in the Home
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The Final Frontier: Defibrillators in the Home

On November 13, 2002, Philips Electronics announced Food and Drug Administration clearance of the company’s HeartStart Home Defibrillator.

Paul Holmes

On November 13, 2002, Philips Electronics announced Food and Drug Administration clearance of the company’s HeartStart Home Defibrillator. More than a year in planning, Schwartz Communications’ public relations campaign to launch the product generated television, print and radio coverage that reached 278 million people worldwide. The impact on Philips’ business was swift and meaningful.
Within 30 days, the nation’s largest drugstore chain called to inquire about a channel partnership; the National Safety Council issued a statement supporting defibrillators in the home; and Philips recorded nearly 1000 telephone calls and 720 web inquiries from physicians, consumers and CPR instructors. Despite the product’s price ($2,400) and prescription requirement, Philips sold 100 units by January 13 on public relations alone. As background, sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) claims the lives of a quarter million Americans each year—more than from breast cancer, prostate cancer, AIDS, house fires, handguns and traffic accidents combined. Less than five percent of victims survive largely because a life-saving defibrillator does not reach them in time.
To reduce the time it takes to treat victims, places where large groups of people gather such as airports, shopping malls and sporting arenas have purchased small, portable, easy-to-use defibrillators. However, few Americans are aware that the majority of cardiac arrests strike victims at home: prior to the launch, even fewer would consider purchasing a defibrillator.
 The primary objectives of the public relations program were as follows: drive awareness of the need for defibrillators in the home; create a sense of urgency for their deployment; position the Philips HeartStart Home Defibrillator as the ideal solution; and establish Philips as the leader in this emerging market. The PR program consisted of three phases: market conditioning, pre-launch and launch.
The objective of the market conditioning phase was to draw attention to the problem. To spark discussion, Schwartz executed a National Press Club debate between medical and industry leaders on the topic, “Is it Time for Defibrillators in the Home,” which was held on January 30, 2002. Schwartz believed that without general awareness of the need for defibrillators in the home, there would be minimal enthusiasm for Philips’ forthcoming solution.
Schwartz pushed Philips to include participants representing both sides of the argument to ensure a balanced discussion, a requirement for attracting national media. The Debate was a success; coverage highlights include AP, USA Today and Atlanta-Journal Constitution. However, once the media began reporting on the problem of cardiac arrest in the home, Schwartz felt they would quickly search for a solution, which may lead to competitor coverage. Therefore, Schwartz timed the Debate to occur just a few months prior to expected FDA clearance.
Pre-launch activities, designed to establish the HeartStart Home Defibrillator as the ideal solution, commenced immediately following the Debate. Philips had redesigned its portable defibrillator for home use because research suggested the probable victim-rescuer relationship in a home setting necessitated a device that was even easier to use than existing products.
While subtle and difficult to convey, the “easier to use” message was critical to establishing the HeartStart Home Defibrillator as the ideal solution. Therefore, pre-launch activities were based on the notion that “seeing is believing.” Schwartz arranged for Philips to deliver embargoed product pre-briefings to top medical reporters at the Associated Press/AP Broadcast News, Newsweek, Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, Saturday Evening Post, Time, USA Today/USA Today Live, the Wall Street Journal and U.S. News & World Report. Due to concerns about news leaks, Schwartz provided broadcast media with background information and placed them on alert.
The research phase, which began in May 2001, consisted of gathering published articles and facts on sudden cardiac arrest in the home and the need for home defibrillators. The findings informed Schwartz’s creation of a position paper, which set the tone for the Debate and helped encourage the participation of respected industry thought leaders (also identified by Schwartz). Schwartz also created “The Case for Home Defibrillation,” a collection of facts distributed throughout Philips to ensure consistency across all public communication.
Schwartz has represented Philips’ defibrillator business for seven years. Deep understanding of and relationships with national medical reporters drove the design of market conditioning, pre-launch and launch activities. For example, the location of the Debate was selected because of the Press Club’s proximity to several influential medical reporters. Pre-briefing activities were similarly designed. For example, while the Saturday Evening Post may be an unusual pre-briefing target, the editor-in-chief, a physician, is a powerful industry influencer.
 Determining the appropriate time to begin launch activities required a rough prediction of when FDA clearance would occur. In addition, ensuring a high volume of media coverage at clearance required a two-week warning prior to formal notification, which normally is not unusual or difficult for companies to secure. Despite the most well-informed predictions however, FDA clearance was unexpectedly delayed by seven months and formal notification of the product’s clearance was nothing short of a complete surprise to Philips’ regulatory officers.
Philips’ regulatory delays presented a very serious challenge to the success of the launch. Schwartz remained in constant communication with pre-briefed reporters to maintain their trust, interest and commitment to covering the news. However, Philips believed clearance was imminent several times. As a result, Schwartz falsely placed reporters on alert twice. The ensuing loss of confidence caused Schwartz to weigh future regulatory predictions against the potential damage of another false alert—a risky and undesirable situation for an agency.
The day-to-day tactics to address the problem are too numerous to mention, but the delay began to erode the trust developed between Agency staffers and select reporters. As expected, competitors took advantage of the media opportunity by positioning their products as solutions to the problem Schwartz so effectively publicized. The CBS Early Show ran a feature segment on the issue of defibrillators in the home, which went as far as to parrot key messages from Schwartz’s press kit, only CBS used a competitor’s device as the solution. Popular Mechanics broke the news outright in its November issue.
Throughout summer and into fall, Schwartz did its best to contain the story and maintain reporter interest. While the Agency hit the inevitable bumps in the road, the launch results confirm the overall success of Schwartz’s activities throughout these long months. In the end, the launch benefited from the opportunity Schwartz helped create in its seven years of working with Philips: the media’s insatiable appetite for defibrillator stories.
 Philips received FDA clearance without warning on Friday, November 8 at 5 p.m. ET. Philips issued its press release on Wednesday, November 13. Schwartz adjusted its launch plan to retain elements of the original plan, which involved orchestrating a newsbreak via the AP the day before Philips’ formal announcement to help drive vast and immediate print, radio and television coverage. The plan worked. On November 13, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Boston Globe (Philips’ medical division is based in Andover, Mass.), Bloomberg, Reuters and newspapers throughout the country (by virtue of two AP articles) covered the news.
The immediate and broad print coverage helped to secure broadcast placements on CBS Evening News, Good Morning America, several live segments on CNN and CNN Headline News and National Public Radio. ABC also released a segment on its newsfeed. The immediate burst of press coverage helped the team drive video news release pick up among television affiliates. Total viewership reached more than 70 million across the country. Additional print highlights included a feature in Time magazine, and BusinessWeek/USA Today and USA Weekend each named the product one of the “Best of 2002.” Time also included the news in its annual “A to Z Guide to the Year in Medicine.” Readership totaled 117,753,939. Listenership reached 90,152,000.
A powerful example of the launch’s success, Jay Leno spoofed the news in three separate Tonight Show monologues as did Saturday Night Live in its Weekend Update. Philips recorded nearly 1000 telephone calls and 720 web inquiries from physicians, consumers and CPR instructors. Within 30 days, the nation’s largest drugstore chain called to inquire about a channel partnership.
Despite the product’s high price ($2,300) and prescription requirement, Philips sold 100 units by January 13 on public relations alone. Through more than 265 million media impressions, Americans gained understanding of the need for home defibrillators and surround-sound exposure to the Philips brand. Within weeks of the launch, the National Safety Council issued a statement supporting defibrillators in the home, a category that was in its infancy just prior to the launch.
The ultimate compliment and measure of success came from the general manager of Philips Medical Systems’ defibrillator business in two of several congratulatory notes to the Schwartz Agency. Her notes say simply, “you are PR gods…how can I thank you for everything you have done for our business?”
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