KKI gets Americans tuned into autism

Through podcasts and news shows, Kennedy Krieger and Spectrum spread autism awareness

Three years ago, the Kennedy Krieger Institute (KKI), a Baltimore-based institution for children and adolescents with pediatric developmental disabilities, began to evaluate ways to raise awareness levels for the institute nationwide.

At the time, the organization enjoyed plenty of attention in its hometown, but outside Maryland, there was plenty of room for growth. Although KKI is based in Baltimore, it treats children all over the country, and the organization was eager to both expand its fundraising base and to introduce its experts to the media as top thought leaders in the field.

"One of the challenges was that we're a very complex organization," says Elise Babbitt-Welker, communications manager for KKI. "Sometimes, for instance, people within a family with a child with autism knew about Kennedy Krieger, but they might not know about everything we do."

At the time, Babbitt-Walker was also shorthanded in the media relations department. With only two people on staff, it was hard to expand much beyond the region, and with the institute offering a range of things, like patient care, special education, research, and professional training, it was difficult to know where to begin. But KKI brought on Spectrum Science Communications in the hope that a sustained push in media outreach would have a lasting impact.

At the time, autism cases were on the rise nationally, and there was substantial coverage of the disease in national media. The team at Spectrum thought it would make sense to begin highlighting KKI for its work with autism, and go from there.

"We did a landscape analysis of the different programs they had and initially wanted to piggyback on issues that already had national interest, and autism was generating a lot of attention," says Liza Morris, SVP at Spectrum. "While we were reaching people on that issue, we were also able to talk about the other things the institute does."

The results began to show immediately. CBS Evening News, CNN, The Washington Post Magazine, and NPR all featured research or scientists from the institute.

At the same time, Spectrum and KKI's media relations team also began to think of new ways to get the word out. Two years ago, the organization released a series of podcasts for parents of autistic children, hoping to reach the active online community of parents.

For national media, the team hosted a webinar for 20 national health and science reporters, providing background on the institute and autism for reporters to use in future stories. Although the webinar didn't include any breaking news, a story appeared that night in a national outlet after the reporter tuned in.

Nearly a year ago, scientists at KKI launched a crucial element in the fight against autism. National registries have aided major research advances for other diseases, but no such registry existed for autism. When KKI launched the Interactive Autism Network (IAN), the media relations team and Spectrum made sure to populate the registry so it would be useful to researchers.

"They wanted to attract a lot of parents to join because the ultimate goal was to get researchers on the site," Morris says. "With-out [them], that's not going to happen."

Prior to the registry's launch, the team featured the IAN project in the autism webinar, as well as cultivated a spokesperson bureau for outreach opportunities, interview requests, and blogging possibilities. Once it was launched, the team started a list of "ambassador" parents in target cities around the country willing to speak to media and spread the message within their communities. They also monitored ongoing conversations in online forums to ensure correct information was being passed and to identify potential opportunities.

The outreach paid dividends. The team released an IAN Update e-mail as enrollment topped 13,000, and saturated target state markets to promote IAN where enrollment was still low. There are now more than 20,000 registrants, and as KKI approaches the third anniversary of working with Spectrum, it's clear the national push has helped awareness levels.

"This project is really seeking to listen to what parents have to say, connect them to researches, and move this field forward," Babbitt-Welker says. "We've certainly seen dramatic growth. We feel like our efforts have been successful and we want to continue to build on that momentum."

This spring, KKI will conduct research to see if they have moved the needle, examining whether the outreach has impacted awareness levels and fundraising. Babbitt-Welker and Morris are optimistic.

At a glance

Organization: Kennedy Krieger Institute

President and CEO: Gary Goldstein

Headquarters: Baltimore, MD

Key Trade Titles: JAMA, New England Journal of Medicine, Pediatrics, Pediatric News

PR Team: Elise Babbitt-Welker, communications manager; Bryan Stark, director of marketing and PR

PR agency: Spectrum Science Communications

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