Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center’s groundbreaking trial leads to unprecedented media coverage
The media relations team at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center successfully promoted a rare form of rectal cancer clinical trial by implementing a mix of owned and earned media, including an impactful storytelling strategy and effective media outreach, earning recognition as a Nonprofit/Government Comms Team of the Year in Ragan & PR Daily’s Communicator of the Year Awards.
The media relations team at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK) is a small-but-mighty team of seven PR professionals who work with international, national, local, and trade press to position MSK and its people as the world’s leading authorities on cancer.
The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) annual meeting is one of the largest medical meetings worldwide. Every spring, 40,000+ medical professionals from around the globe gather in Chicago for five days to attend what some call the “Super Bowl of the oncology world” where researchers present their game-changing work. National and international reporters attend in person and virtually. Every year, the MSK media relations team leads the communications strategy.
In 2022, two colorectal oncologists from MSK were chosen to present the results from a small clinical trial of 18 patients with a rare form of rectal cancer. The research also was selected to be published simultaneously in The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM). Typically, trials of less than 100 people rarely make the news. But these results were astonishing – a 100% complete response in all patients. Using an experimental immunotherapy drug with little to no side effects, the first 14 patients saw their tumors disappear, avoiding painful surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation that often leads to life-altering incontinence, infertility, and sexual dysfunction. The media relations team recognized that with impactful storytelling and effective strategy, they could promote this research to a worldwide audience and put an international spotlight on MSK.
The goals included making the largest impact at the meeting among their competitors, securing earned international media coverage in a variety of mediums to reach audiences beyond the oncology community, elevating its research team as thought leaders in colorectal cancer, showcasing the life-saving discoveries and cutting-edge research, driving people to MSK’s website, and increasing potential patient leads.
Utilizing a mix of owned and earned media, the media relations team worked with other in-house MSK teams to implement an integrated strategy. The team facilitated collaborations with key internal and external stakeholders, developed scientific-specific and patient-forward storytelling narratives and messaging, produced engaging multimedia and digital assets, and planned a tiered media outreach approach starting with a top-tier story timed to the embargo lift.
The team also enlisted the two doctors who led the trial to be the spokespeople to explain the research, what this breakthrough meant for the medical community, and how it felt for them to personally be involved. For the patient perspective, the team identified four patients with diverse ages, races and backgrounds. After conducting extensive interviews, four narrative storylines were developed to showcase each patient’s unique and emotional experience.
Several assets were produced including a formal press release, an editorial story on MSK’s website outlining the research, patient stories, and more.
Several weeks in advance, the media relations team secured interest from Gina Kolata at The New York Times to write a story that would serve as the catalyst for MSK’s media strategy. Kolata interviewed the two doctors and one of the identified patients. The story was published online with the headline “A Cancer Trial’s Unexpected Result: Remission in Every Patient.” Two days later, it ran in print in the New York edition of the paper and a Spanish translation of the article was published online. As the oncology community and reporters were following the meeting on Twitter, the team tweeted the story with links to the press release and editorial story, so the public could find out more information.
The media relations team secured 4x more online and print stories than its four main competitors and 3x the reach of its 2021 media coverage from the meeting. The media strategy sparked worldwide coverage resulting in 1,936 online, print, broadcast, and radio hits in 30+ countries with a total reach of 822,370,357 (per Cision, Google News, and Muckrack). Since the launch, the team has facilitated thousands of online, broadcast, radio, podcast and print opportunities worldwide – including a seven-minute segment on CBS Sunday Morning. Social media planning resulted in 186M impressions (per Brandwatch), exceeding those generated by the institution in all of 2022 prior. Per Google Analytics, 196K web visitors viewed the editorial story on the website, with 87% being new to the website.
Most importantly, the extensive attention resulted in significant inbound web and phone traffic from potential patients. There was a 124% increase in external new visit requests (ENVRs) from potential patients looking to make an appointment with a gastrointestinal solid tumor oncologist and a 107% increase in ENVRs from potential patients looking to speak with a colorectal cancer surgeon (per data from MSK’s Patient Access Service).
Kudos to the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center’s media relations team.