Media Relations Draws attention to People with Disabilities

Posted on 30. Apr, 2010 by in Non-Profit, Portfolio

Oak Hill Responds to a Terrible Tragedy — A family murder-suicide tragedy shocked Connecticut and shook the community of caregivers and providers for people with disabilities.

Case Study


A family murder-suicide tragedy shocked Connecticut and shook the community of caregivers and providers for people with disabilities. In late February 2007, Richard Brown shot and killed his wife and their two grown disabled children, before committing suicide in his home. Patrick Johnson, president of Oak Hill, the leading nonprofit provider of services for people with disabilities in the state, wanted to address the issue in Connecticut’s largest newspaper, The Hartford Courant, which had prominently covered the story. The initial letter to the editor he wrote and submitted to the Courant was rejected. He concluded they “didn’t seem to want his stuff,” and asked First Experience Communications (FEC) for help.


The objective was to elevate the profile and position of Oak Hill as a trusted leader in Connecticut among care providers for people with disabilities by publishing a thought-provoking response to a tragedy that shook the people of Connecticut. Target audience was the Hartford Courant and its readership. FEC reviewed coverage of the Brown family tragedy and compared letters to the editor the Courant published about the tragedy with the one Patrick Johnson submitted. Our analysis showed that the newspaper’s general guidelines for a Letter to the Editor called for 200 words or less; Patrick Johnson’s letter was 332 words. The Courant also liked letters to be “in response” to an article or another letter. If it was contentious with something they wrote or something someone else wrote, all-the better. The letter Patrick Johnson had written simply echoed a common theme among nonprofits that talked about how tight their budget was, how hard it was to keep staff and how desperate they were for more funding from the State. The human element of the tragedy had become lost, yet in talking with him, the human element and insight was Patrick Johnson’s strongest message. FEC needed to find a way to share it.

We investigated the option of submitting an Op-Ed piece. Op-Eds come from a credible authority and are not rebuttals of other articles. Also, the Courant wants the author to have expertise or personal experience with the subject, which Patrick Johnson certainly did. An internal letter Patrick Johnson had sent to Oak Hill employees after attending the family’s funeral had the core elements of insight and sensitivity we needed to share with the public to help them understand how such a thing could come to pass while elevating the role of care providers for people with disabilities. We recommended developing an Op-Ed piece for Patrick Johnson with the high-level, human focus he used to address the issue with Oak Hill care providers. General word count guideline for an Op-Ed is 700 words, which gave us the length we needed to share his message. We recommended the letter be submitted directly from Oak Hill to the Hartford Courant and wrote a brief email that positioned Patrick Johnson’s credibility as president of Oak Hill, as well as a member of a family with a loved one who is disabled and receives care from community service providers serving people with intellectual and development disabilities in Connecticut. The project was completed in less than two days and came in under budget.


Oak Hill submitted the Op-Ed piece to the Hartford Courant on March 16. On March 20, the Courant editor called Patrick Johnson to let him know they had accepted the article and were going to publish it. The Op-Ed piece ran the next day. Oak Hill received many positive calls on the Op-Ed article from the community, donors, client families and other care providers. At Oak Hill’s Board of Directors meeting later that week, the Board Chair recognized the importance of the article, concluding, “We’re moving mountains here, and we’ve got to feel good about that.”


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