As the nation’s largest for-profit hospice provider, VITAS Healthcare Corporation never solicited charitable contributions.  However, in the summer of 1999, VITAS formed the Foundation for End of Life Care, a not-for-profit organization created to improve end of life care for individual patients and their families while supporting fundamental societal change.  The Foundation’s first gift was $13.5 million to establish the Duke University Institute on Care at the End of Life, the first academic entity to bring together multiple disciplines, schools and professions to study how best to care for those near death.   VITAS’ agency of record, Hill and Knowlton, was asked to develop a communications plan to launch the Foundation, and work with Duke University to obtain national media coverage of the Duke Institute’s kick-off symposium. In addition, VITAS was eager to position itself as the nation’s leading hospice provider. Combining the expertise in H&K’s Florida, New York and Washington, D.C. offices, H&K approached VITAS’ goals of leadership positioning, Foundation communications and Duke Institute media relations as an integrated task, building upon each component to leverage the others.


H&K used the launch of the Duke Institute as an opportunity to begin educating both consumers and healthcare professionals on end of life options.  The primary obstacle throughout this campaign was that like most Americans, the media does not like to talk about death.  This was overcome by using tactics such as incorporating a human-interest element into the VNR and conducting a Yankelovich omnibus survey, which is a nationwide survey of 1,000 adult Americans age 18 and over. The omnibus survey and further internal research led to the development of an internal and external communications plan for the Duke Institute, the Foundation and VITAS.


H&K relied on three research methods.  Two were designed to assist in development of the Foundation communications program: a survey of VITAS employees and a national survey of H&K employees.  The third Yankelovich omnibus survey was presented at the Duke Institute’s kick-off symposium to provide additional insight on sources of end of life information.

The Yankelovich omnibus survey was funded by the Foundation and found that Americans want more than medical care at the end of life and rely on personal rather than professional relationships for advice and information when faced with end of life decisions.  H&K used the research to add an element of timeliness to the Duke Institute symposium and the video news release (VNR), as well to position the Foundation as a national resource of information for industry and media.  

H&K worked with the Consumer Research Center to assess VITAS employees’ attitudes about the Foundation and its goals.  The research focused on four key areas: the identification and rank ordering of the different aspects of the Foundation’s mission, the perception of the Duke Institute and Duke University, attitudes about an employee role in fundraising and identification of the most compelling internal spokespeople for Foundation information.  H&K used this research to identify tactics that would best communicate the Foundation’s messages to VITAS employees, including an internal communications video and talking points.  In addition, H&K asked both VITAS and H&K employees for reaction to a proposed mission statement.  The H&K research complemented the internal research by evaluating the effectiveness of the mission statement for external audiences.


The H&K Florida office created multiple plans that utilized national media experts from the H&K network.   Plans included project budgets beyond the monthly retainer and assigned tasks to team members.  H&K’s first step in planning the communications program was to identify the target audiences which were VITAS employees, charitable donors, hospice caregivers from all disciplines and consumers ages 30+.


Position VITAS as the nation’s leading hospice provider

Generate awareness and acceptance of the Foundation and the Duke Institute among internal and external audiences

Educate the public of the benefits and availability of hospice care


H&K leveraged publicity for the Duke Institute and Foundation to strengthen VITAS’ position of industry leader. Using research that found that the public needs more information on end of life care options, H&K built a media relations program that included local and national media pitches and relationship building with reporters to generate ongoing publicity on end of life care options.  In addition, H&K worked with DWJ Television to create a nationally-distributed, evergreen VNR that announced the launch of the Duke Institute, while educating consumers on the benefits of hospice. The research also showed that the Foundation needed to overcome employee objections to soliciting charitable funds from VITAS families.  H&K created an internal communications plan to educate and inspire the VITAS caregivers about the Foundation.  


Execution was both internal and external because research showed that VITAS needed to educate the public on end of life options, and also needed to overcome employee objections to soliciting charitable funds from VITAS families.


Symposium Media – Beginning in February 2000, H&K pitched national consumer and trade media, targeting healthcare, religion and social issues reporters.  The symposium was used as the timely news hook but the crux of H&K’s pitch was VITAS’ role in the establishment of the Institute.  Duke pitched the symposium and the Institute to their regional media.  The week after the symposium H&K released a VNR announcing the Duke Institute. The VNR was created to have evergreen appeal and a nationwide reach, while promoting the Foundation by using its omnibus survey results as the timely news hook. In addition, the VNR positioned VITAS as an industry leader by including soundbites from J.R. Williams, M.D., President of the Foundation for End of Life Care and Executive Vice President and Chief Patient Care Officer of VITAS Healthcare Corporation, for third party credibility and industry expertise.  Interviews with a VITAS patient and his family lent a human-interest angle important to television viewers.

Foundation Media – The first day of the symposium H&K released the results of the Yankelovich omnibus survey to national consumer and trade healthcare reporters.  We also followed up with two matte releases, Funding for End of Life, which discussed the hospice Medicare benefit, and Evaluating End of Life Care Options, which explained how to find information on end of life care.

VITAS/Ongoing Hospice Media Relations – In September 2000, H&K organized a media pitch to coincide with the Bill Moyers PBS series, On Our Own Terms.  In several of VITAS’ program markets we pitched the concern over care at the end of life as a pertinent national trend.  At the same time, the U.S. Senate Committee on Aging held a hearing on hospice that included testimony by Louise Tharpe, whose late mother, Ruby, was a VITAS patient.  Because Ruby was too ill to testify in person, H&K produced a video of Ruby explaining how hospice helped during her illness. This, too, became part of the regional pitch.  In addition, H&K worked with Time magazine on the development of the cover story, “How We Die.”  Time interviewed VITAS CEO Hugh Westbrook for background information.


H&K has continued to support the Foundation on internal communication needs, writing the organization’s case statement and mission statement.  In addition H&K is producing an internal video to explain the Foundation to VITAS caregivers and abate initial concerns regarding soliciting donations.


International coverage on the Duke Institute included an article in the Baltimore Sun, which went over the

LA Times wire and was picked up by the Cincinnati Enquirer, Detroit News, Florida Times-Union, Daily Telegraph (Australia), New Orleans Times-Picayune and Salt Lake Tribune.  The symposium received mention in the Wall Street Journal and on  The VNR generated 1,532,999 audience impressions in 40 markets.  Through H&K’s efforts, the syndicated column Dear Abby ran a letter from Foundation President Dr. J.R. Williams discussing the benefits of hospice, the Foundation and the Duke Institute.

The Yankelovich omnibus survey results were printed in USA Today,, NHO Newsline, BNA’s Health Care Policy Report, and Quality of Life Matters.  Several organizations requested the survey, including the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, Hospice Foundation of America, Hospice and Palliative Care of Metropolitan Washington, Hospice of Boulder County, Supportive Care of the Dying Coalition and William M. Mercer, Inc.  

The media pitch during the Bill Moyers series resulted in a front page, two-part series in the Los Angeles Daily News.  It also garnered coverage in Dallas, Texas on 90.1 FM and KERA-TV.  These opportunities resulted in at least four patient referrals and two volunteer applicants.  In addition, VITAS spokespeople were interviewed for pending stories the Orange County Register.  
The Funding for End of Life Care matte release resulted in 196 newspaper articles in 14 different states, with a readership of 11,393,456.  The Evaluating End of Life Care Options matte release resulted in 324 newspaper articles in 20 different states with a readership of 13,905,456.  Equivalent ad values for both releases would total $88,678.22.