Enhance Your Image Through Issues and Advocacy
by Sandra Gordon

Editor's note: Following is a case history of how the National Easter Seal Society focuses upon specific issues - largely communicated via PSAs - to generate greater public awareness for its overall programs and mission. Ms. Gordon was formerly senior vice president, of corporate communications, for the National Easter Seal Society, headquartered in Chicago. She was responsible for developing and implementing their strategic marketing plan, including advertising, public education, corporate sponsorship and media relations programs. The Easter Seals PSA campaigns developed under her supervision have received numerous awards and wide acclaim within the disabled community. Prior to joining Easter Seals, Ms. Gordon was assistant vice president for communications at the Schwab Rehabilitation Center in Chicago. and director of public and media relations for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons in Rosemont, Illinois.

For many organizations, a primary goal of the past several years has been to create a greater public awareness of the agency or association - to build greater name recognition and public knowledge of its products or services. To do this, most organizations have sought to establish a successful advertising, marketing and public relations mix. Often what is missing is a focus on the issues that an organization represents.

An editorial in the Chronicle of Philanthropy recently challenged fundraisers to create an enduring sense of philanthropy. "In Hebrew, the word 'tzedakah' means charity and philanthropy," writes Irving Warner. "It also means, among other definitions, justice and righteousness." Warner reminds fundraising professionals that they are "supposed to create the climate and conditions necessary for the creation of philanthropy to create tzedakah."

The same is true for associations and agencies working to increase the general public's awareness of their services and products. While advertising, marketing and public relations provide a basis for building and enhancing an organization's image, promotional campaigns are often short-term and easily forgotten - unless they are based on issues of public concern.

Carefully crafted, multi-media public service campaigns can be extremely effective tools for publicizing issues, and the same time, positioning an agency or association as a resource or industry leader among its target audiences. Issues-oriented campaigns are also invaluable in solidifying long-term relationships with corporations and other agency sponsors.

Easter Seals Challenge

In the mid-eighties, the National Easter Seal Society learned, through a Gallup poll measuring the public's awareness of non-profit organizations, that almost 90 percent of the general public recognized the Easter Seal name. But, among this same group, only a third could identify what the organization did.

With this knowledge, the National Easter Seal Society began its successful collaboration with Camphell-Mithun-Esty Advertising in Minneapolis. Working from an initial "creative blueprint," Easter Seals designed a series of annual fundraising and public education campaigns that focused on public attitudes about people with disabilities. The business goal was "to encourage contributions." Another goal for Easter Seals was to reposition the agency as a respected advocate for people with disabilities within the disability rights movement.

An additional consideration for Easter Seals was the fact that the organization's national network of affiliates offers a variety of services; no two Easter Seal Societies are identical. And, while each separately incorporated Easter Seal Society is dedicated to enhancing the independence of all people with disabilities, each society tailors its services to meet the needs of the community it serves.

To unify Easter Seals' message, we identified the most universal barriers to independence told by people with disabilities, and used them for our general public service and advocacy campaigns. These were:

  • Public prejudices and negative attitudes toward people with disabilities
  • Access to employment opportunities
  • Accessible housing, transportation, public facilities, and telecommunications systems.

Implicit in the creative work was the understanding that people with disabilities would be portrayed as everyday people living everyday lives, independently, with support from Easter Seals. This was a deliberate and significant departure from many organizations' fundraising appeals to people's pity for "victims," or portrayals of "brave," "inspirational," courageous individuals.

Easter Seals' message for the general public, for the business community, government officials, and the people the organization serves, is a realistic, positive portrayal of children and adults with disabilities.

Creating Issues-Oriented Campaigns

Over a five-year period, the National Easter Seal Society has created a body of public service and advocacy campaigns that have focused on the disability issues identified in the original planning process. Each multi-media campaign includes a television spot, radio PSAs, and a series of print ads. As a testament to their effectiveness, these campaigns have been widely used in disability rights publications. Each campaign also has won national advertising and public relations awards and each has received media exposure valued at several million dollars.

Easter Seals' original "Friends Who Care" campaign included television and radio PSAs, as well as a series of five print ads and posters that point out how name-calling hurts, and how kids with disabilities are stigmatized.

A curriculum was also developed to augment the media materials and distributed to some 20,000 elementary schools through a $350,000 grant from Ronald McDonald Children's Charities. Our goal was to assist teachers and administrators in their efforts to integrate children with disabilities in their classrooms and school systems. These campaign materials were recognized by Media Access as a special merit award winner in November, 1989.

In October, 1990, Easter Seals launched a multi-media campaign designed to point out the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which disabled Americans are discriminated against in everyday activities. "Awareness is the First Step Towards Change" was released to the electronic and print media as part of Easter Seals' overall effort to promote the implementation of newly legislated civil rights for disabled Americans. The Disability Rag, one of the disability rights movement's most outspoken publications, featured "The First Step" campaign's posters in its "Kudos" section.

Targeting the Issues

When former President George Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law on July 26, 1990, it was a landmark day for Easter Seals and the coalition of disability groups that had worked to develop legal guarantees of basic civil rights for more than 43 million Americans with disabilities.

With the ADA, Easter Seals has an unprecedented opportunity to sharpen the focus of its multi-media public service and advocacy campaigns. The civil rights covered by the ADA - equal opportunity for employment, accessible public accommodations and public transportation systems - werre issues that Easter Seals' national network of affiliates have worked for many years to address.

These are social justice issues that, when addressed, will make it possible for the children and adults with disabilities that Easter Seals serves to live and work independently.

Easter Seals 1992 campaigns highlighted the issues addressed in the Americans with Disabilities Act. For the first time, advocacy and fundraising campaigns have been merged to create a year long series of TV, radio and print PSAs.The campaign, "Because Public Transportation is for Everyone" thanks the general public for making accessible public transportation possible for all citizens.

"The ADA: It Took an Act of Congress" campaign points out how the employment, public access and telecommunications provisions of the law will benefit everyone as we integrate people with disabilities into the mainstream.

Our current campaign, "All of Us Have the Ability to Make a Difference," conveys the message that all Americans, including those with disabilities, have an obligation to vote, volunteer and speak out.

Raising Funds and Awareness

The annual 20-hour National Easter Seal Telethon's current format reflects Easter Seals' increasing emphasis on advocacy and disability issues. Twenty percent of the telethon's segments are devoted to advocacy and public information. They feature profiles of children and adults receiving Easter Seal services, cover topics such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and include the Society's television PSAs.

The telethon also provides Easter Seal corporate sponsors with an opportunity to showcase the advocacy and issues-oriented projects they have supported. Each year, one or more corporate sponsors underwrites a public education program.

Over the past five years, Enesco Corporation, a giftwares firm, has sponsored both the "Friends Who Care" and "First Step" attitudes campaigns, as well as underwriting a 15-minute videotape on the ADA called "Nobody is Burning Wheelchairs."

Other corporations have tailored issues-oriented campaigns to dovetail with their own markets. For example:

  • Eddie Bauer, the upscale retail clothing chain, sponsored a campaign that provides a guide to campaign opportunities for children with disabilities.
  • Amway Corporation worked to create a checklist for parents that identifies possible developmental delays in young children.
  • Century 21 Real Estate Corporation has underwritten an accessible housing campaign.

These programs and their corporate underwriters are featured on Easter Seals' Telethon, and they are also promoted as part of media campaigns addressing disability issues.

Focusing on disability issues and providing resource information for corporate sponsors have proved successful for Easter Seals from a financial standpoint as well. Corporate sponsor gifts have increased by almost ten percent each year over the past ten years, to a record of almost $20 million - a 25 percent increase over the previous year. Last year, in a very difficult time, our telethon set a new record of $43 million.

Harris Poll

In the fall of 1990, as part of creating an overall marketing communications strategic plan, the National Easter Seal Society commissioned an image study. Louis Harris and Associates conducted quantitative and qualitative research to measure public recognition of the Easter Seal name, mission and overall effectiveness at achieving its mission.

What Easter Seals learned was that a full 71 percent of the public, 72 percent of households with disabled persons, 90 percent of Easter Seals donors and 87 percent of leaders reported awareness of the Easter Seal Society.

And, within ten years of the Gallup poll that showed only a third of the public knew what Easter Seals' did, the Harris survey found that 59 percent of the general public and 63 percent of households with disabled persons could "volunteer in their own words a description of the mission of the Easter Seal Society."

Easter Seals' multi-media, issues-oriented advocacy campaigns were introduced in 1987, shortly after the original Gallup poll. Clearly, if one looks at the 1990 Harris survey, these campaigns have had a significant impact in creating and enhancing a greater public awareness of Easter Seals' mission and services.

Still another way to judge the long-term success of our PSA campaigns is to review the evaluation data compiled after each campaign has been distributed.

As the chart above indicates, the total verified value of Easter Seals PSA campaigns distributed in the past four years, is in excess of $13 million. This data does not include any national television network exposure because we have no way of verifying network usage. However, we are informed each time our PSAs are cleared for network "feed," and unquestionably their usage adds millions of dollars worth of exposure to this total.

Following are key elements of the National Easter Seal Society 's award-winning public education program.


  • Quantitative and qualitative baseline surveys on public awareness and attitudes about Easter Seals.
  • Quantitative evaluation of exposure in all media using PSAs.
  • Post-campaign tracking research to measure changes in public awareness and attitudes towards Easter Seals over time.

Definition of Goals

  • Developing clearly-defined, measurable goals, for its public education program that are linked to the organization's basic mission.

Quality Creative; Multi-Media Execution

  • Use of advertising agency to develop strategic, high-quality messages that are issues-oriented, positive and realistic.
  • Execution of creative concept in all media to capitalize on inherent differences in media and to reach special audiences.
  • Retaining external distribution consultant to develop targeted media lists and coordinate all facets of PSA campaign implementation.

Bolstering Corporate Support

  • Use of PSA to support fundraising via corporate sponsorships.
  • Using telethon to showcase public education programs and recognition of corporate sponsorships.

Media Promotion & Recognition

  • Annual awards program to recognize media support.
  • Active member/exhibitor in National Broadcast Association for Community Affairs.
  • Dissemination of letters of appreciation to all users of Easter Seals PSAs.

In looking at the graph subtitled: "Value/Benchmark Comparisons," our PSAs have performed significantly better in all media categories than the industry benchmark campaigns evaluated by our PSA distributor.

The National Easter Seal Society received an Associations Advance America Award of Excellence for its "Friends Who Care" and "Awareness is the First Step Towards Change" campaigns. These awards were recognition of the strong stance the organization has taken to become a respected advocate on disability issues. Both "Friends" and "First Step" are advocacy campaigns that challenge negative public stereotypes of people with disabilities. These are multi-media campaigns that Easter Seals has created and distributed to make people more aware and accepting of people with disabilities.

These campaigns, as well as all other public education and advocacy campaigns we create, take a hard-hitting approach to the issues that people with disabilities face as they work to become independent members of their communities. They are created from Easter Seals' most basic concern: if people leave our rehabilitation programs but can't find schools, jobs, homes, and accessible transportation that can accommodate their needs, then we have not completed what we started to do.

In the final analysis, however, it is not media awards, a strong balance sheet or public recognition that determines success. It is the ability to fulfill the mission of the organization.For the National Easter Seat Society, advocacy and issues-oriented media campaigns have made it possible for us to make a difference in the lives of people with disabilities, their families and their communities - to fulfill our basic mission.