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Why New York’s largest health system tied gun violence to a public health crisis


By The Drum | Editorial

December 7, 2023 | 6 min read

Northwell Health and Thunder11 have won the Healthcare and Pharma category at The Drum Awards for PR. Here is the award-winning case study.

Check out the award-winning campaign

You don’t have to be a physician to recognize that America is during a harrowing public health crisis. Life expectancy is at its lowest point since the mid-1990s, and so-called “deaths of despair” claim close to 100,000 lives each year–the equivalent of three full passenger planes dropping from the sky each day. New York’s largest health system, Northwell Health, felt compelled to change the conversation around one of those types of deaths: gun violence, equating it for the first time to public health. It did so using a variety of marketing communications tactics that include the creation of an annual, high-profile Gun Violence Prevention Forum (activation), provocative paid public service advertising, and earned and social media amplification. The health system even enhanced questions posed to emergency patients to inquire whether there are firearms in the home, how they are stored, whether they hear gunfire in their neighborhoods and if they’ve ever been threatened.


Research and its practical implementation were both crucial to the conception, design, and success of this first-of-its-kind campaign from a health provider. We studied the data above, which included the startling fact that more than 300 Americans fall victim to gun violence each day. Northwell, led by its visionary CEO Michael Dowling, put its money where its mouth is in taking the treatment of gun violence out of the political sphere and putting it squarely into the public health arena where it rightly belongs. In addition to creating the Center for Gun Violence Prevention in early 2020, the health system embarked on an initiative called “We Ask Everyone” at several hospitals, wherein emergency patients are asked about access to guns in their homes.


The approach was straightforward: Demystify the role the health system plays by giving reporters, legislators and regulators, a first-hand look at efforts to build coalitions around patients, physicians, administrators, policy makers, and other stakeholders in non-traditional ways that allow everyone to reimagine the scope of what’s possible when it comes to gun violence. For gun violence, Northwell and Thunder11 leveraged the expertise of Dr. Chethan Sathya, the health system’s Center for Gun Violence Prevention director, as well as the health system's CEO Michael Dowling. Both aggressively set out to have the health system’s voice heard on the topic.

Northwell and Thunder11 started by promoting the Center for Gun Violence Prevention to help shape the role that Northwell and other health systems can play in advancing safety, education, prevention, and research. This led to promoting the first-of-its-kind Gun Violence Prevention Learning Collaborative for Health Systems and Hospitals, an innovative and interactive forum created in 2021 aimed at identifying potential solutions to the ongoing crisis. Finally, Northwell and Thunder11 incorporated the systems Gun Violence Prevention Forum into promotion, which brings healthcare and law enforcement leaders, policy makers, survivors, and families from across the country together to discuss how to curb gun violence.


Our idea behind the campaign was a three-pronged approach: First, an earned media campaign centered on inviting reporters from top-tier publications to take an intimate look at our programs from the inside; Second, partnering with leading authorities and organizations in the field under consideration, and leveraging our mutual credentials for added visibility and prominence; and finally, amplifying the results on secondary outlets, from social media to trade publications.

For gun violence, this included creating and promoting a gun violence awareness campaign. This was a PSA type program that encouraged parents to ask other parents if they have guns locked in their homes (before a play date). This campaign went both locally in NY, as well as offered, at no charge, nationally to more than other health systems, which deployed in their regions with digital, print, and social assets. More than 100 participated.

Northwell and Thunder11 conducted extensive media relations, contributed content, and social media campaigns to support all the health system’s gun violence initiatives, with impressive results.


While the effectiveness of any given earned media campaign can never be perfectly measured, the extensive coverage of Northwell’s efforts in top-tier news organizations and prominent speaking roles at important conferences and on Capitol Hill, demonstrated the success of our efforts, exceeding all expectations.

For example, NBC Nightly News, impressed with our collaborative, science-driven approach to changing the conversation around gun violence and advocating for a host of measures, e.g., new hospital intake forms, produced a lengthy package in which Dr. Sathya offered an intimate tour of the hospital’s efforts to fight gun violence, including introductions to patients and a survey of our initiatives. The NBC story alone received hundreds of thousands of views on TV, streaming and online, and even more impressions on different social media channels. This was followed by several appearances on CNN, op-eds in from Scientific American to Harvard Business Review to New York Daily News, as well as two consecutive panels accepted at South by Southwest, featuring such renowned gun control advocates as former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords.

As for the gun violence awareness campaign, brand consideration increased by 25%, brand leadership increased up to 30%, and those exposed to the campaign were 2.5 times more likely to ask about an unlocked gun versus those who did not see the campaign.


Northwell shared a toolkit of public awareness assets with over 170 hospitals and health systems, who secured print, out of home and broadcast placements in their local markets, leading to hundreds of thousands of views and impressions across the country. To raise awareness in their respective markets to end this public health crisis, more health care professionals have continued to sign on to the Learning Collaborative, which already has roughly 700 health care professionals participating to date.

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