Recent high-profile cases of traumatic brain injury have given the BIAA a platform it's never had
Just a few short months ago, the Brain Injury Association of America (BIAA) was entering its 27th year much the same way it had begun each previous one. The organization was still fighting an uphill battle to get anyone to notice traumatic brain injury (TBI), and its efforts were largely focused around awareness outreach.
What had gone unnoticed to the public at large, though, was that TBI had reached epidemic proportions in the US. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, TBI affects 1.4 million Americans every year, more than five times the incidence of multiple sclerosis, HIV/AIDS, spinal cord injuries, and breast cancer combined. And yet nearly no one knew the acronym TBI.
That all changed very quickly. In March, ABC News correspondent Bob Woodruff, who had sustained a brain injury in Iraq in January 2006, brought the issue front and center by airing a lengthy special on veterans who had sustained brain injuries. The issue quickly picked up steam.
Then, as Woodruff raised the profile of brain injuries to returning soldiers, the National Football League began addressing its problem with TBI. The league gathered medical personnel and its concussion research committee this past month to discuss the issue.
"In PR, you do everything you can, but then sometimes situations create a perfect storm," says Tom Constand, president of business communication company Starrconstand and a board member at BIAA. "In our case, there were twin tidal waves of awareness. One was the NFL and concussions that were being reported. The other was Woodruff."
Constand got involved with BIAA several years ago, first as a board member, and then by offering his agency's assistance pro-bono. Susan Connors, president and CEO of BIAA, says that while the organization has had internal communications personnel in the past, never before has it enjoyed the advantages Starrconstand brings.
While Connors and Constand have put much of their energy behind awareness efforts, the string of events that created a perfect storm earlier this year has forced the communications team to reevaluate.
"For years, we have called it a silent epidemic," notes Connors. "Recently I had the pleasure and honor to write to my board of directors and say it's no longer appropriate to call it the silent epidemic, because we are not silent anymore. It's more appropriate to call it the invisible injury. Part of our overarching PR goal is to make it more visible, to put a face to it."
When Woodruff was beginning to put together his ABC special, BIAA provided the network with a number of TBI survivors, neuropsychologists, doctors, and rehabilitation centers. Connors says not only was every major media outlet suddenly calling its office, but donations also surged and Web site traffic saw an immediate jump.
The key from that point on, says Constand, was to keep the issue in the public's mind.
Already the group has partnered with NASCAR and former driver Ernie Ervin - who sustained two brain injuries during his driving career - to form the LAPS (Leadership and Awareness to Promote Safety) walk at Michigan International Speedway. Constand says the last event attracted more than 500 people and there is interest at tracks around the country to hold their own version.
"The demographic of NASCAR's fan base corresponds closely to the demographic of those who sustain the most brain injuries, which is 18- to 34-year-olds," says Constand. "We're creating a template that we very soon want to take on the road. To me, events are the more powerful, impactful way of getting your message across. They provide dimension and exposure to the cause."
The group also recently hosted the premiere screening at SilverDocs, the Washington, DC, festival, for HBO's new documentary Coma. The film follows the lives of four young people who sustain brain injuries.
Connors says the BIAA is focusing much of its efforts now on organizing the 2008 Brain Injury Awareness campaign, and while it was too early to discuss details, she says it will be a multimedia campaign.
"Before all of this happened, we couldn't even get the TBI act reauthorized," she says. "It's our signature legislation, the only federal legislation that addresses individuals with brain injuries, and we couldn't get Congress to pay attention to it. Now there are 25 bills in Congress."
The organization suddenly has its hands full. Connors says that in addition to fielding the media requests, its main focus will be preparing for the 2008 initiative. She's not ready to talk specifics, but if the past three months are anything to go by, it's a safe bet it will be the biggest yet.
AT A GLANCE
Organization: Brain Injury Association of America
CEO/President: Susan Connors
Headquarters: McLean, VA
Key Trade Titles: Journal of Head Trauma Rehabilitation and Brain Injury; Brain Injury Professional; The Challenge!
PR Budget: Undisclosed (pro-bono)
Tom Constand, Pat Radice, Lindsey Grosso (all members of Starrconstand)
Marketing Services Agencies: Starrconstand