</strong>March of Dimes aims to shift policy through outreach

With the help of celebrity and regular spokespeople, the March of Dimes works toward preventing premature births by raising awareness and seeking changes in public policy.

With the help of celebrity and regular spokespeople, the March of Dimes works toward preventing premature births by raising awareness and seeking changes in public policy.

The March of Dimes can trace its roots back to 1938, during a national fundraising campaign to help fight polio. Today, the group maintains a strong focus on childhood health. But its current emphasis is on preventing, screening, and treating infantile diseases. "The March of Dimes has tremendous brand awareness," says Beth Rowan, former director of media relations. (Rowan left the March of Dimes last month to become an SVP at Rowland Communications.) "One of our biggest challenges is telling people that we were successful in the polio campaign, but now we're moving toward premature babies." Crafting a unified message is complicated because the organization undertakes four major fundraising and public awareness campaigns. Those involve two initiatives surrounding premature birth: one around the importance of folic acid during pregnancy and one to standardize newborn screening tests. "I think that sometimes people think that the nonprofits move slower than the corporate world," Rowan says. "There is no downtime here." Rowan notes that 2004 was a "banner year" for the media relations team. She points to successes both with current campaigns, as well as with publicizing the 50th anniversary of the Salk vaccine, a polio-prevention breakthrough. Traditional efforts While the mission has shifted from polio to prematurity, the essence and spirit of the PR initiatives are strongly rooted in the organization's history. The March of Dimes actually got its name from the media, when comedian Eddie Cantor urged radio listeners to send a dime to the White House to support President Franklin Roosevelt's new National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. Cantor coined the phrase from the March of Time newsreel. "For the first day or two, nothing came to the White House," says Robert Storace, manager of magazine and online media relations. "[But] all of a sudden, the March of Dimes was overwhelmed with bags and bags of dimes." "It was founded as an organization to sway the public to get behind the fight against polio," adds Michele Kling, senior health and science press officer. "Media relations was the first thing they did." And much like in its early years, the organization spends virtually no money on advertising, save for PSAs. Another tactic that has been preserved over the years is using celebrities. In the 1930s, Roosevelt raised money for the foundation by hosting the annual President's Birthday Ball, which boasted a high-profile guest list. "Celebrities help to bring awareness more than anything else," says Robin Wexler, manager of national celebrities, who works closely with the PR department. "Ideally we would look for someone with a connection to our pre- maturity mission." Joining November's annual Prematurity Awareness Day, for instance, were Laurie Hibberd, an entertainment reporter for The Early Show, and her husband, Michael Gelman, executive producer of Live with Regis and Kelly. They have a daughter, who was born prematurely. Kling notes that the addition of celebrities has allowed the March of Dimes to reach media outlets that it otherwise could not, such as Entertainment Tonight. But the March of Dimes recruits celebrities and regular people alike as spokespeople. The group organizes a National Ambassador Program, with parents devoting a year or more to speaking about their experiences. Dorenda Washington had several miscarriages before her son Justin, now 10, was born, weighing just a pound and a half. For two years, she and her husband, Kraig, traveled around the country, speaking everywhere from a "ballroom of 100 people to a boardroom of 10 people," she says. "When you flash the picture of Justin at a pound and a half, and I'm holding him in my hand ... and then he comes on stage alive and well, it makes it more real. I think they do a great job of reaching people at different levels. The grassroots approach works very well." Carol Evans, chief operating officer at Working Mother Media and a member of the March of Dimes' board of trustees, surprised herself when she spoke about prematurity in front of other journalists. "I told my story about [my son] Robert's birth, and I realized that I had never spoken about it publicly," she recalls. "I could barely get through the first three words of my speech." Evans notes that people in the audience were crying, as well. "It made a real connection to editors," she says. "Everything [the March of Dimes does] is generated by PR." Working toward change Events like Prematurity Awareness Day - when 24 national landmarks were lit in pink and blue for a "moment of hope" - are part of a five-year, $75 million campaign to decrease premature births. The March of Dimes launched the research, advocacy, and education initiative in 2003. The campaign also helps fund the 35-year-old Walk America, another prematurity awareness event held each spring. "The [PR] team's success is that since the last quarter of 2004, we've been doubling the number of media impressions," Rowan says. "We hope to become top of mind." But success comes from more than just media impressions, and policy changes are the ultimate goal. Rowan points to a campaign to increase and standardize the number of newborn-screening tests in each state. The group's outreach began in 2000, when an editorial in the medical journal Pediatrics advocated for more oversight of newborn-screening programs. The problem, Rowan says, is that states have different requirements for which birth disorders hospitals must screen for - and the March of Dimes created a state-by-state report card to prove the point. "When people started to see the disparities, they were amazed," she says. Even though only a small percentage of babies will test positive for any one disorder, serious complications can sometimes be avoided by simple diet changes, she adds. Rowan notes that interest in the story was so high that NBC's Today dedicated four consecutive mornings to the issue. "That's pretty unheard of in the media relations world," she says. The Wall Street Journal also picked up the story, following two babies with the same metabolic disorder. One baby had received the benefit of early screening and intervention; the other had not been screened and suffered complications from a delay in diagnosis. "We were working with the reporter since May. And he was so taken with the story ... he flew out to California and interviewed the families," Kling recalls, adding that the story ultimately appeared on the front page. "Then it just began to snowball. And we began to see public policy [action.]" Kling notes that some states increased newborn screening from four tests to more than 30. The federal government also commissioned a study on the issue. The March of Dimes has seen similar success with a 1995 folic acid campaign, which helped persuade the Food and Drug Administration to fortify food with a nutrient known to play a role in preventing birth defects. The numbers match the effort, with 32% of women now taking folic acid and neural tube defects down 25%. "There's always new young women who haven't heard the message," Kling says. "It's a problem people underestimate. The news media is the same way." Going forward, the PR team will concentrate on reaching minority groups. Last year, it held a roundtable with black journalists, and this year, it'll hold one with the Hispanic media, says Todd Dezen, associate director of media relations. The PR team also embraces corporate partners and readily participates in their cause-marketing efforts. On the day of a prematurity event, the March of Dimes will typically open the NASDAQ. In 2003, representatives rang the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange for the first time. Evans, the trustee, notes that the March of Dimes raised $200 million in 2003. "It's the combination of PR and corporate contact ... that is very well-developed," she says. -------- PR contacts SVP of strategic marketing and communications Doug Staples Associate director of media relations Todd Dezen Senior health and science press officer Michele Kling Manager of magazine and online media relations Robert Storace

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