CAMPAIGNS: Media effort helps terrorist victim tap into federal funds

PR Team: Shearman & Sterling (New York) Campaign: September 11 and recognizing common law marriage in New York State Time Frame: January-July 2002 Budget: $3,000

PR Team: Shearman & Sterling (New York) Campaign: September 11 and recognizing common law marriage in New York State Time Frame: January-July 2002 Budget: $3,000

September 11, 2001 left multitudes of victims and their families in dire need of financial, legal, and emotional assistance. In the months following the disaster, several corporate law firms across the country volunteered to represent the victims and their families free of charge to help them gain access to the $6 billion September 11 Victims Compensation Fund. Shearman & Sterling, a global law firm, took on many pro bono clients, including Marmily Cabrera, a woman left with two sons when her common-law husband of 10 years died on the 96th floor of the World Trade Center. Cabrera was not eligible to receive compensation from the fund, as New York State did not acknowledge common-law marriages, unlike Pennsylvania and Washington, DC. Having exhausted many legal avenues, the Shearman & Sterling lawyers turned to the firm's in-house PR team for help. Strategy With a tiny budget and limited resources, the firm decided to follow an organized plan of research, planning, execution, and evaluation. "Our primary objective was to help Marmily gain access to the fund," says Shearman & Sterling media and communications manager Dara McQuillan. "We were reasonably confident that if we could raise public awareness and get the attention of important people and politicians, they would be able to help her. I don't think we realized how many other parties like gay partners and fiances the campaign could affect." A secondary goal to financial compensation was persuading New York State to recognize Cabrera's as well as all other common-law marriages. The research was divided into three main categories: legal, media, and political. The firm's lawyers conducted the legal research that included New York State Law, common-law marriages, the September 11 Victims Compensation Fund, and fund special master Kenneth Feinberg. Media research consisted of identifying editors, reporters, and producers who'd worked on September 11 and its legal workings. Political research targeted influential politicians, including Gov. George Pataki (R-NY), Sens. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Charles Schumer (D-NY), and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Tactics With the interns at the agency doing much of the work, the legal, political, and media campaigns were launched in a quick and hard-hitting manner. The legal campaign focused on qualifying Cabrera for the fund, the media campaign tried to build public support for the case while spotlighting the unfairness of New York State law, and the political campaign built legislative support for Cabrera and other "nontraditional" victims. "The whole thing was executed very aggressively," says McQuillan. "It was all about do or die. It was a crisis campaign because we were working with a client who was dealing with things we couldn't imagine. Rather than grieving over her loss, she had to worry about supporting herself." "Marmily's story was easy to understand for audiences," says Christina Hawley, media intern at the firm. "She never realized that not having a marriage license would have such a huge effect, and she had lived a very regular life." Results Cabrera was interviewed by The New York Times, Newsweek, and the Associated Press. She also appeared on the Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor. This proved to be the crucial turning point of the campaign, as the fund's Feinberg later sent a letter to Fox producers saying he would "review the family's individual circumstances and determine the appropriate award." The three coordinated campaigns resulted in two major victories: Cabrera is now eligible for compensation from the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund, and several New York State and City bills were passed allowing all domestic partners access to the fund. Future While Cabrera has been deemed eligible for the fund, she is presently awaiting her compensation. She no longer speaks to the press, and was therefore unavailable for comment.

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