The Power of Publicity

William Bernbach, American advertising executive, once said, ”All of us who professionally use the mass media are the shapers of society. We can brutalize it. Or we can help lift it onto a higher level.”

DKC understands the great responsibility that comes along with creating news, working with the media and, as a result, we are very careful to work with clients whose mission we believe in. So, when Heather Vandenberghe approached DKC in 2009 to work on behalf of her six-year-old daughter, Elle, DKC spurred to action.

Elle suffered severe, debilitating injuries resulting from being hit by a car on her way to school in September of 2009. The driver had reversed illegally through an intersection at high speed to secure a parking space. The driver only received a traffic violation and modest fine. The relatively soft penalty shed light on the fact that the New York State penal code—as well as the penal codes in 38 states— has no adequate means of addressing reckless driving when alcohol is not involved. If the driver was drunk, he could have been arrested under the state’s DWI statute. However, the driver who hit Elle was sober. So, despite the fact he broke numerous traffic laws, resulting in a horrific accident that almost killed a young girl, the police could only ticket him.

In response, DKC launched a pro-bono legislative campaign to incentivize safer driving by changing the law to impose harsher penalties on reckless drivers and raise awareness of the need for drivers and pedestrians to be extra vigilant during back- to- school season.

In order to execute the first stage of the campaign for Elle’s law—getting it signed into law—DKC enlisted its Government Affairs team to work directly with New York State legislators and carry the bill through the various stages necessary (Legislative Committees, the State Assembly, the State Senate, and Governor David Paterson’s signature) for it to become law. DKC took a legal analysis of vehicular assault statutes and penal code in all 50 states, looking for states with the type of harsher penalties for reckless driving that DKC was seeking to pass in New York. A search of cases in New York State involving vehicular assault in 2008 was also completed.

For the second stage—raising public awareness—DKC consulted on the launch of a massive Elle’s Law public service announcement (PSA) campaign in print, online, and outdoors, just in time for the back-to-school season.

DKC introduced Heather Vandenberghe to Assemblyman Micah Kellner, who represents the Upper East Side where she and Elle live. Meetings with Senator Martin Malave-Dilan (Chairman of the senate Transportation Committee), Assemblyman Joseph Lentol (Chairman of the Assembly Codes Committee) and Senator Charles Fuschillo soon followed as DKC continued efforts to build support for the law. The Government Affairs team’s work went beyond meetings with legislators; they also helped to amend the bill as needed as it progressed through committees and the chambers of the state legislature.

Thanks to the successful navigation of the state legislature by DKC Government Affairs, “Elle’s Law” unanimously passed the New York State Senate and Assembly and was signed into law by Governor Paterson on August 13, 2010. Elle’s Law mandates that drivers who seriously injure pedestrians while ignoring traffic laws can lose their license for six months, or, in the case of a repeat offense, a year.

DKC also introduced Elle to Dr. Peter Costantino, a world-renowned cranial surgeon at Roosevelt Hospital, who fitted Elle with a permanent and undetectable prosthetic skull to repair the damage done to hers in the accident. Thanks to this extremely complex, muti-hour surgery, Elle’s appearance has been returned to exactly what it was before the injury.

Elle has defied all odds and walked into her home speaking both English and French, just as she did before the accident. She returned to school in the fall. The campaign serves as an example of just how powerful publicity can be —changing laws and one little girl’s life.