Easter Seals rallies supporters to make its case to lawmakers

Easter Seals launched "Make the First Five Count" last spring to engage existing supporters and younger audiences and influence lawmakers to raise funding for early intervention services by up to $100 million in the coming years.

Organization: Easter Seals (Chicago)
Campaign: Make the First Five Count
Duration: April 2011-ongoing
Budget: $280,000

Easter Seals provides early intervention services to help children with special needs and developmental delays succeed in school. It launched "Make the First Five Count" last spring to engage existing supporters and younger audiences and influence lawmakers to raise funding for early intervention services by up to $100 million in the coming years.

"We sought a major public engagement campaign to raise support," says Jeanne Sowa, SVP of marketing.

A petition opposing cuts to the part C Early Intervention Program of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and calling for increased funding was created to help influence lawmakers.

The Easter Seals Spokespersons Network, a group of 50 early childhood experts, therapists, and PR pros, drives messaging locally and nationally via media and public outreach. Meetings in Washington, DC, a website, a PSA, and social media outreach also drove awareness.

Ogilvy PR was hired to media train the 50 spokespeople. M+R Strategic Services helped with online strategy and execution.

The campaign launched in April, which is Autism Awareness Month. It was announced on Parents magazine's blog and social media properties. Media briefings were held in New York and Washington.

Outreach is ongoing to reporters covering healthcare, parenting, primary education, and legislative beats. Mommy, healthcare, education, and autism bloggers are also targeted.

Network spokespeople conduct outreach to media, legislators, educators, parents, and various online communities. They are provided numerous materials, message dissemination plans, and press releases.

MaketheFirstFiveCount.org is the campaign hub. It features the petition, a white paper, success stories, videos, expert contact information, and more.

Messaging, updates, and news are also posted to Facebook and Twitter, while 20 national corporate sponsors elicit support from their customers and employees through their own external and internal channels.

An Internet PSA was created with sponsor CVS Caremark highlighting an autistic boy who has benefitted from services. It was sent to bloggers and posted on MaketheFirstFiveCount.org, as well as on YouTube. In addition, an RMT with CVS Caremark was conducted.

AVP of PR Kristen Barnfield says Easter Seals' DC office secured a July 12 meeting with Valerie Jarrett, chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls. Three families and Easter Seals experts discussed with Jarrett the value of early intervention services and the need for funding.

On November 9, several hundred representatives met with 536 legislators in Washington to present signed petitions. A state-by-state report on early intervention was released the same day. Results were shared with legislatures and media and posted to the website.

Thirty-nine thousand petitions were signed as of November 1. The goal is 100,000 signatures by the end of 2013.

"We're pleased," Sowa says. "We've never had 39,000 people sign up for something online."

Facebook likes increased from 12,175 on April 1 to 16,408 on December 31. Twitter followers rose from 2,834 on April 1 to 3,994 on January 10.

There were 33,863 new email subscribers as of October 1. In addition, nearly 5,000 online and traditional media stories have run to date.

The spokespersons network will expand to 80 this year. Emphasis on communicating with employees, volunteers, and donors will also increase.

PRWeek's View
This in-house team has established a good foundation for a multi-year initiative. Getting so many people face to face with Jarrett and legislators was wise. Using the Easter Seals Spokesperson Network has helped drive penetration on local and national levels. Easter Seals also did a great job telling success stories across multiple channels and in keeping social media messaging robust and interactive - both should continue to broaden reach. Increasing communication with internal audiences will help drive word of mouth and general momentum.

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