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The Power of Wire Services
Media Coverage of the Baby Rebeca Case
In December, 2003, a baby girl with a severe birth defect was born at the CURE International Center for Orthopedic Specialties in Santo Domingo. Little Rebeca Martinez had one of the world's rarest deformities. She was born with the conjoined head of her undeveloped Siamese twin.
The decision to perform surgery was a milestone in medical history: it would be the first such surgery every attempted on a child with this rarest of defects. An international team of doctors performed the surgery. Though successful, the baby succumbed from hemorrhaging five hours after the procedure. Nonetheless, the knowledge gained would add immeasurably to helping children in the future.
When I received this assignment, it was mid-January. I knew I only had two weeks or less to get the word out. My strategy was to arouse interest in the wire services and/or USA Today. I knew that if one or more stories appeared on the national and international wires, it would generate tremendous attention and potential coverage among the broadcast and cable media, and other print media. The same would hold true for USA Today.
I decided to first "leak" the story to Reuters, offering them an advance story two weeks ahead of the planned surgery. I also decided to give this story to Reuters out of Miami, which it seemed to me would be most interested in this case, given Miami's proximity to the Caribbean and the Dominican Republic. The editor accepted, and ran a story which ran on the national and international wires two weeks in advance. I positioned the story as national and international in scope and relevance, since I explained this was one of the world's rarest conditions and surgeries, and that the results, whether reflecting a positive or negative outcome, would contribute to world medical knowledge.
The Reuters story captured the immediate attention of the major cable and broadcast television websites, as well as dozens of newspapers around the USA and world. I knew that the "seeding" of the story had begun in the collective psyche - but there was more to do. The next goals consisted of convincing the Associated Press to run a story just prior to the surgery, and after the surgery. I also began planting seeds with the medical/health editor at USA Today.
With the AP, I discovered they had a correspondent situated in the Dominican Republic, and that he was probably my best bet. When I first called and e-mailed him, I explained that medical history was about to unfold in the D.R., and that this was the biggest medical event in the history of that country. He wasn't entirely committed, so I arranged a dinner meeting between him and the medical director of the CURE hospital, who I briefed in advance and provided the "perspective" and "copy points" to share with the AP reporter at that dinner. This seemed to rally the support of the reporter, who still needed the stamp of approval from his editors out of New York. When the first story - the pre-surgical story - was filed, the editors decided to run it, in part due to the positioning which had been framed by my conversations and e-mail with the reporter, as well as the medical director's reinforcing conversation.
At the same time, I also continually fed the editor at USA Today with updates about Baby Rebeca's condition and other developments, and he finally agreed, days prior to the surgery, to run a story. The AP story ran first, followed by the USA Today story. In the latter case, I had helped the assigned USA Today reporter by arranging phone interviews for him with the leading surgeons on the case, and offering him some additional information not previously given, in order to justify his editor's hopeful acceptance, in case the emergence of the AP piece would dissuade publication by USA Today. This worked, and the USA Today story, well-written, also included a graphic of the surgical procedure which was given exclusively to the reporter after a special interview with one of the neurosurgeons on the case.
With the emergence of the first stories by AP and USA Today, and with the earlier Reuters story as an undercurrent, the media pounced on this story and pickup was enormous worldwide.
CNN, which had been reluctant to run the story when I first pitched them weeks earlier, decided to run a major story on Anderson Cooper 360, as well as on news reports on CNN and Headline News for several days. All the major networks' websites continuously carried the story pre-surgery; and CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, The New York Times, and other major papers across the country (as well as major European African and Asian newspapers and print and broadcast news services [e.g., the BBC] ran the story as well post-surgery and upon the baby's passing.
AP and USA Today likewise ran follow-up stories. I also arranged for a live Sunday morning interview on CNN with CURE International's CEO, Dr. Harrison, following the baby's passing. This was positioned with CNN as an opportunity to interview the man whose teaching hospital had brought a team of surgeons to make medical history; and the visionary who was setting up teaching hospitals in other Third World countries to advance modern medicine in parts of the world suffering from a lack of First World medical care.
The story came very close to airing on Oprah, and I was in frequent contact with a producer who had been assigned to the case. In the end, a reluctant decision was made not to air the story, only because of the tragic outcome and Oprah's desire to cover positive outcomes. However, a segment featuring Dr. Harrison was arranged on The Maury Povich Show, and the good doctor was hailed by Maury as a hero to a standing ovation from his audience.
The outcome of all this coverage was an infusion of an additional stream of donations to CURE, and heightened and well-deserved publicity and public support for an organization that is too much a well-kept secret