If you read a newspaper or know anyone who's life is touched by autism, then you know about the controversy surrounding the debut of a new TV show called Eli Stone, beginning tomorrow evening. The premise of the show is that Eli Stone, a lawyer who sees George Michael (yes, the aging Wham! member) in his dreams, defends a lawsuit filed by a family that contends that a preservative in a vaccine their child received when he was a baby, caused their child to become autistic.
It has stirred up a huge controversy among those who live and work with autism. The basis of the controversy is the grand separation between two camps of beliefs about whether vaccinations caused a loved one to become autistic. One group -- the mainstream -- led by groups like the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Institute of Medicine (IOM) and other government and not-for-profit groups -- points to large scientific studies which prove no correlation between the preservative (called thimerosol) in the vaccines, and autism. (As an aside, point of interest, thimerosol was removed from all the standard childhood vaccines in 2001, yet autism, generally diagnosed between 18 months and 3 years, continues to increase.)
The other group is dead-set it its belief that vaccinations caused the autism in (usually) their child. This group also includes some experts who point to their own research that proves the connection, and there are some large groups of mostly parents who are absolutely convinced that the vaccinations are at the root of autism.
And the controversy stirred by Eli Stone? At the end of the show, the family wins the lawsuit for $5.2 million -- supposedly "proving" that the preservative caused the child's autism.
Enter the American Academy of Pediatrics which wrote a letter to ABC asking them not to air the show. Their concern is that parents of infants will watch the show, and decide against getting their children vaccinated.
Enter SafeMinds -- an organization comprised of those people who are sure the thimerosol causes autism, which insisted the show be aired so people would better understand the autism-thimerosol connection.
ABC has held their ground. They will not budge. The show will air tomorrow night.
So did SafeMinds really "win"? Did the AAP really lose? And what about the concern that parents may watch the show and choose not to vaccinate their kids?
My take? As a former marketing professional who spent her career doing everything to get the media to talk about my clients, I applaud ABC for succeeding at making such a huge splash with a show that otherwise might have missed an audience. Cancel the show? Not a chance. This is simply a brilliant way to create an audience -- fabulous BUZZ. And that's all. In the PR world, the mantra is "We'd rather have them say bad things about us than say nothing at all."
Think of it this way. Eli Stone will be on TV opposite a big favorite -- Without a Trace, on CBS. It will also be on TV opposite the second hour of Celebrity Apprentice. In fact, my guess is that this particular Eli Stone episode was written specifically to make exactly the noise it has made. Seeking an audience? Rile them up! And I'm betting it won't be the last time we hear controversy about the show.
All this buzz is simply job security for ABC's PR people. And the AAP simply fueled its fire.
And while it's not important to the PR point, I'll also share my opinion. I have trouble believing that parents will watch the show and decide not to have their children vaccinated. Will they ask their pediatricians about thimerosol? Yes, they might. And their doctors will explain to them that the preservative is no longer an ingredient, and that the alternatives (death and debilitation from measles, rubella, mumps and more) are far worse. Will those parents go online to learn more about the controversial beliefs? Yes, they may. But, again, they will learn that their concerns, in 2008, have already been satisfied.
Discussion of any controversial subject has the ability to move any conversation forward. Great discoveries have been based on discussion and transfer of knowledge. Eli Stone's trial has already moved the conversation forward. Like many thousands and thousands of others, I know more today about autism research than I did just 24 hours ago. Tomorrow I expect I'll know even more.
And now you, too, are priviledged to be able to say the same.
Plus, as a former PR person myself, I kneel at the alter of those ABC spin doctors for a job well done.
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