Schiavo case helps NAELA highlight the need for living wills

The National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA) is a trade group whose members are trained in working on the legal problems of aging Americans and the disabled, as well as on issues related to health, medical care, and end-of-life planning.

The National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA) is a trade group whose members are trained in working on the legal problems of aging Americans and the disabled, as well as on issues related to health, medical care, and end-of-life planning.

"[We seek] to make the public aware of elder law in general and certainly NAELA and its members in particular," says NAELA MD Debbie Barnett.

In August, NAELA began working with Kellen Communications to raise exposure for the organization and elder-law issues. To that end, it got a boost from a Florida right-to-die case that was just heating up.

Strategy

As soon as it got the NAELA account, Kellen began to look at the Terri Schiavo case, says communications manager Stan Samples, who, along with Ann Krauss, was the account lead. Schiavo, a woman in a persistent vegetative state for 15 years, at the time was caught in the middle of a legal battle between her husband and parents about the removal of her feeding tube. The husband said it was her wish not to be kept alive artificially. But because she had no formal living will, her parents fought in court to keep her on the tube. She died on March 31, nearly two weeks after it was removed.

Barnett agrees that Schiavo's case was always of concern. "We have been aware of the case for a long time," she says. "It became a focus ... because [Kellen] knew it was important to us."

Once it became clear that at the heart of the case lay a message about the need for living wills, Samples says, Kellen determined that the topic would be the best way to get NAELA featured in the media. "It's all about seeing what the media cares about now, and [finding] a way to [position] ourselves as part of the conversation," he says.

Tactics

In September, when the Florida Supreme Court decided not to intervene in the Schiavo case, Kellen issued a release tying the decision to the need for living wills within two hours. In January, following a similar decision, a parallel release was issued.

In March, another release was issued, reflecting moves by both President Bush and Congress to stop the removal of Schiavo's tube. A week later, Kellen gave the media a new angle: Not only are living wills important, but so are the laws of the state in which one lives. During March, Samples says, Kellen pushed the results of the living-wills survey conducted by NAELA, which showed that only a third of baby boomers have them.

After Schiavo's death, the PR team slowed activity out of respect, focusing on what could be learned from the case. It also sent follow-up information to journalists that had reported on the case, letting them know about state-by-state law differences and how to write a living will. "Her case brought awareness, but the need for living wills continues for all," Samples says.

Results

NAELA received coverage in several news outlets, including Newsweek, Smart Money, The Wall Street Journal, and ABC News. In addition, NAELA's website showed a 73% increase in the number of visitors from the same period last year. On the day that members were quoted in the Journal and appeared on ABC News, website traffic was 300% above normal. Barnett says NAELA members have also reported an increase in questions about living wills from existing clients, as well as others.

Future

Kellen will continue to work with NAELA on PR efforts through 2007. Future educational efforts will focus on Social Security, Medicare, and other elder-law issues, says Samples.

PR team: National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (Tucson, AZ) and Kellen Communications (New York)

Campaign: Living Wills/ Advance Directives

Time frame: August 2004 to March 2005

Budget: $100,000

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