The Afghan boy may have arrived last month at Riley Hospital for Children with heart trouble and a need for complicated surgery. But behind those soft, brown eyes and that adorable smile lies a 12-cylinder marketing engine.
A sample of the 15-month-old’s power:
Qudrat’s often-reported story created at least $1 million in free media for Riley, according to hospital officials. That’s 10 times the amount Riley spends on print or broadcast advertising in a year.
He could be responsible for doubling to 20 or 25 the number of sick children local Rotary Clubs help each year. He gave the city’s life sciences image a dose of national publicity. And Riley reaped all this without crossing ethical boundaries or exploiting the child and his father, according to outside observers.
Riley representatives fielded up to 50 media requests for interviews or information the first couple of days after word got out that Qudrat was coming to Indianapolis for a life-saving operation, spokesman Jon Mills said.
In the world of public relations, Riley struck gold.
The three images that tend to grab the most attention in advertisements are infants, pets and trees, according to Bruce Hetrick, president and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm.
Take one of those images, add to it a compelling story, and you build an instant emotional connection to the average reader or viewer.
“We can all relate to a little kid having a crisis,” said Hetrick, an IBJ columnist. “Either we have little kids or we’ve been a kid.
“We’ve got to save that little guy.”
The Indianapolis Star and local TV stations fed that connection with steady updates during Qudrat’s treatment at Riley. The child received national publicity as well. NBC Nightly News and MSNBC covered him, according to Mills. CNN called to ask about the case. Stories also ran in USA Today and other papers across the country.
“We know it showed up in papers in Florida and on the West Coast and the East Coast,” he said.
The heart surgery probably cost at least $50,000, according to Duane Sobecki, a senior partner at Focused Results LLC, an Indianapolis-based health care consulting group. That ballpark figure includes things like the cost of the surgeon, nurses and follow-up visits.
The Rotary Club covered some of that, but the hospital donated most of it.
The amount of free advertising Riley received in return dwarfs that total. Mills added up all the newspaper space devoted to Qudrat and all the TV time. It translates into a minimum of $1 million worth of free media coverage for Riley. The hospital normally spends about $100,000 annually on print and broadcast advertising, he said.
The actual value of all the publicity is probably much higher. News stories hold more credibility with readers or viewers than ads, according to Sue Mantel, an associate professor of marketing at IU’s Kelley School of Business.
Most people know an ad spins a company’s image one way or another, she said. In contrast, people generally see news stories as being unbiased.
This free publicity should lead to a number of benefits for Riley.
Qudrat’s story won’t build an instant line of patients standing outside Riley waiting for care, according to Cheryl Stone, president of Cheryl Stone and Associates Ltd., a Chicago firm that specializes in health care market research.
She noted that Riley already has a good reputation and people don’t always need hospitalization for children. However, parents will remember this case if their children ever need specialized treatment.
And they’ll remember it for a long time, according to Hetrick. He noted that people still connect cycling star Lance Armstrong with Dr. Lawrence Einhorn, the IU School of Medicine professor who treated him for testicular cancer in 1996.
He said stories like that “just last for years and years and years.”
That’s because they make a bigger impression on the average person than statistics or other ways to evaluate medical care.
“Whenever you can share a story, it just has more staying power than confusing numbers,” Hetrick said.
Qudrat’s marketing power also extends beyond attracting more patients to Riley. In fact, Betsy Gelb ranks that low on the list of benefits.
“It isn’t about getting patients,” said the founder of the Institute for Health Care Marketing at the University of Houston. “To me, it’s about every other marketing effort, not only for the hospital, but for the city. I think that’s the real point.”
A case like Qudrat’s helps build a city’s national reputation for medical technology, Gelb noted. That, in turn, raises its life sciences profile.
“The message you’re really sending with all this publicity is that we are putting Indianapolis on the map for cutting-edge medicine,” she said.
That pays off for the hospital several ways, she said. For instance, if Riley leaders tell the city they want a street paved or a sign installed, it might happen a little quicker. Corporate donors might open their wallets a little wider because they like what the hospital has done for the city’s image.
“Why would they not want to support an institution that was helping the city’s reputation?” she asked.
Any extra money will come in handy, considering Riley has started a capital campaign to build a new tower for patient rooms. Qudrat’s case provides a nice endorsement, Hetrick noted.
“If the donor has a soft spot in their heart for little kids, that’s a powerful impact for fund raising,” he said.
The only negative impact Stone sees from all this publicity is people might wonder what the hospital does for local children.
“I think the smart thing for Riley would be to let people know what their policies are for people in the area who are in need,” she said.
Mills is happy to comply.
“Riley does not turn any child away, regardless of ability to pay,” he said. “If you’re coming to our hospital, an Indiana kid, you will receive care.”
Qudrat, his father, Hakim Wardak, and a translator made it to Indianapolis thanks, in part, to the central Indiana Rotary Clubs.
The Rotary Clubs covered his stay at the Ronald McDonald House of Indiana Inc. and part of his surgery through their “Gift of Life” program, said Karin Blue, a member of the Greenfield Rotary Club who helps oversee her district’s program.
Rotary Clubs around the country run these programs to bring children to the United States for surgery. Since 1997, the central Indiana chapters have brought 63 children to Indiana for life-saving heart procedures, Blue said.
Only four or five of the 44 Rotary Clubs in central Indiana have shared the burden to raise money and pay for those cases, Blue said. But that may change.
At least 20 more have expressed interest in joining the “Gift of Life” program since Qudrat arrived. If just five or six of those clubs follow through, the Rotarians could more than double the children they welcome annually from 10 or 11 to 20 or 25, Blue said.
“Sometimes, it takes something like this to get everybody’s attention,” she said. “Even our own members.”
Mills and fellow spokesman Johnny Smith set up an e-mail system to keep the media updated on Qudrat’s stay and progress throughout his hospitalization.
Some messages offered simple condition updates. Others told reporters about the next press conference, and some addressed unconventional topics.
One, dated March 9, told the media Hakim Wardak wanted to push back broadcast interviews.
“Mostly, he wants to avoid cameras at this point,” the e-mail states.
Another dated March 17 told reporters the hospital heard complaints about a newspaper picture that showed Qudrat sitting in a forward-facing car seat, which can be lifethreatening for a small child.
In response, Riley set up a car-seat training session.
Mills said he started the e-mails to avoid answering countless pages and phone calls every day. He and Smith focused mostly on managing the deluge of questions and requests while shielding the family’s privacy.
They kept the family off limits to the media for a couple of days after their arrival, so they could adjust to the hospital. They also bugged the translator for updates on how the father was handling everything.
They managed the situation correctly, according to Stone, who liked the e-mail strategy. Any high-profile hospital case will lead to an inevitable flood of media requests, and Riley representatives acted smart “in organizing ahead of time,” she said.
Parents are the key in these situations, according to Hetrick. As long as the parents are comfortable with the publicity the child receives, he sees little danger of exploitation.
Hetrick knows more than the average marketing executive about this. He has written several IBJ columns about family struggles with cancer.
“To the extent that you can share with other people how they can get help, and how they help [others] and how they can not give in, in a way you’re doing a public service,” he said. “If you can save one life, it’s worth sacrificing a little privacy.”