Unless you have been completely untethered from all media this week, you know that a popular character on British historical drama Downton Abbey died from postpartum eclampsia, shocking and devastating over 8 million devoted viewers. In her death, Lady Sybil became our unwitting celebrity spokesperson!
With advance knowledge of this surprising plot element, thanks to our sister organization in the UK where the show aired last fall, our team developed a simple but savvy public relations campaign, including an Op-Ed piece in the Daily Beast, a press release, a newly released Health Information article, and social media strategy centered around Twitter and Facebook. Our ability to anticipate the firestorm of attention Lady Sybil's death allowed us to ride the tsunami of national and major market media coverage, Twitter, Facebook and blogs that discussed the episode after its Sunday night airing on PBS.
When I asked our resident social media guru, Laney Poye, what she thought was the most important result of this campaign, she said, "It was heartening to see the Foundation positioned by other influential organizations as the go-to public resource for more information about preeclampsia and eclampsia. For example, groups like the American Public Health Association and Masterpiece Theater PBS referenced the Preeclampsia Foundation to assist their hundreds of thousands of followers in understanding the medical reality of the fictional show."
She continued, "We had more than 400 'retweets' of our original Twitter content related to Downton Abbey and had over 22,000 new website visitors in just three days."
Although many disgruntled fans who missed the show complained of 'spoilers' in the headlines the next morning, we were gratified that an even larger audience responded with heartfelt personal accounts, sometimes reawakened grief, but mostly enlightened gratitude for our timely, credible and informative perspective. Our work to be in front of the conversation on preeclampsia and eclampsia shifted the worldview of hundreds of thousands of people as they now know that this common complication of pregnancy, 100 years later, is still taking the lives of mothers and babies and seriously threatening many more. And they know that there's something that can be done about it. We need to empower women with knowledge, advocate for a patient-provider partnership, and improve health care responses - all part of the Foundation's current assignments, and clearly evident in the social media dialogue over the past few days.
"The fact is that a POPULAR TV show (on both sides of the pond) used preeclampsia ACCURATELY as a plot point is actually extremely important. Think about how many people now know about it who may not have even heard of it before. It brings the information to light."
"The mother of my godson died from preeclampsia shortly after she gave birth in 2003. It manifested atypically, and she was actually admitted to the hospital by her astute eye doctor after her OB-GYN blew her off (it was labor day weekend - the doc told her she was overreacting). 3 days later she was dead. So, yeah...it still happens."
"Dumb article? I think not. I wish every day I had been made aware of the signs and symptoms of pre-eclampsia. Don't just assume your care provider has it under control. Educate yourself."
I watched the reaction to our media campaign with amusement and pride. Never before had we so successfully leveraged a fictional event to draw massive public concern for our cause. I know that it will be short lived, even as responses to real life tragedies often are. But when the sound and fury dies down, the Preeclampsia Foundation will still be here, telling our stories and inspiring researchers, policy makers, women and their care providers to action. And I'm confident in and grateful to our mission partners - like my Op-Ed co-author Christine Morton from CMQCC - who will help lead the way.
I'd much rather have my emotions sucker-punched by the death of a fictional character than by the loss of a loved one to the many real-life families who turn to us for support and information. It is for you that we continue our good, hard, even sometimes thankless, work. Please, if you haven't yet, consider joining with us as a volunteer, donor, advocate or mission partner.