In a September 7, 2007 game, Kevin Everett of the Buffalo Bills suffered a fracture and dislocation of his cervical spine, an injury doctors initially characterize as "life threatening."
To save him, Dr. Andrew Cappuccino of Buffalo Spine Surgery used a state-of-the-art temperature-control system, Coolgard 3000, which is not yet approved for use with spinal injuries.
Alsius, the company that produces the Coolgard, learned early about its use in Everett's treatment. But the situation was sensitive, making the PR task difficult.
WeissComm advised Alsius executives to take the conservative path and not do anything that might be construed as a violation of HIPPA or FDA guidelines, which prevent the company from endorsing off-label uses.
"Obviously this was the biggest thing to ever happen to the company," says Angela Pennington, MD at the agency and lead on the Alsius account. "But how do you leverage something like this?"
The strategy played out as Alsius CEO Bill Worthen made himself available for interviews. He ensured that Alsius erred on the safe end of the spectrum.
"This event was the biggest media exposure in the history of the company," he says. "We absolutely managed to maximize our exposure, while at the same time remaining conservative."
Instead of being overly aggressive, WeissComm and Alsius reached out to media covering the story, as well as the hospital PR team where Everett was being treated and the Buffalo Bills PR team, to provide as much information as possible.
That approach, says Pennington, was successful as reporters were grateful for the background information and began including it in their stories.
"We coached the CEO not to answer questions about whether [Alsius'] technology [was] used in Kevin's treatment," she adds.
Even before the news broke that Alsius technology was used, Pennington says traffic spiked at the company Web site, and a Reuters reporter included quotes from Worthen.
When news media in Buffalo finally broke the story that Everett was being treated with its technology, the company followed up with the reporters to provide additional information.
Throughout the effort, Alsius was careful to not promote the off-label use of the technology. Pennington says it even got a call from the FDA in the midst of the news supporting its position.
The media exposure both mentioning the company and educating the public on the techno- logy was huge. Pieces ran in local and national outlets in the immediate aftermath of the injury, but there were later in-depth pieces from Newsweek, NPR, The New York Times, and Sports Illustrated. Traffic at the company's Web site increased overall, and there was a surge in sales calls, according to Pennington.
"From a PR standpoint, any discussion such as this is a good discussion because people are focused on what the technology does," she says.
WeissComm continues to support Alsius on its PR work, while both parties say they are unsure whether there will be future efforts to highlight Everett's experience.
Worthen says the company is happy with how the team handled the situation and that the information put out managed to bring the focus back to situations for which the technology had already been approved.
PR team: Alsius (Irvine, CA) and WeissComm Partners (SF)
Campaign: Injury of Kevin Everett
Duration: Sept. 2007- Jan. 2008
Budget: Under $15,000 a month (for all Alsius PR activities)
This campaign worked because WeissComm and Alsius stayed committed to a conservative plan, refusing to bow to the temptation to immediately push news that its technology was being used in this high-profile case.
By reaching out to the media covering the incident and providing useful information on the technology and its benefits, the company gained reporters' trust and found its way into the news without the perception it was taking advantage of a tragedy. This approach will likely help the company in the long term.