August 14, 2014 Update: We apologize to anyone offended by this post. It was not our intent to capitalize on the passing of a great actor who contributed so much. 

As we mourn the loss of Robin Williams to depression, we must recognize it as an opportunity to engage in a national conversation. His death yesterday created a carpe diem moment for mental health professionals and those people who have suffered with depression and want to make a point about the condition and the system that treats it. There’s a very careful line they need to walk so as to not seem exploitive of a terrible situation but at the same time, it is a national teachable moment that shouldn’t be ignored. (We too are balancing that line with this post.)

This Washington Post blog post, published yesterday at 9:01 P.M., is tagged with the phone number (+1 800 273-8255) of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Stephanie Gallman, a CNN producer, wrote a heartfelt post about her own depression. CNN also reposted a piece by their Eatocracy (food blog) editor, Kat Kinsman, on her teenage depression experience. Local TV websites are posting resources on depression. This Forbes contributor (on health topics) had the added advantage of living in Marin County and having met Robin Williams, as well as being close to a suicide prevention group. There are hundreds and hundreds of Tweets discussing the very real problem of the diagnosis’ stigma to the trouble some people may have in paying for needed treatment and medication.

At Edelman, we are in the business of helping our clients create or join public conversations. We know that appropriate organizations can elevate a public conversation to help those in need. We and our clients can learn from this situation.

  • Some mental health organizations still have nothing on their websites or Twitter feeds regarding the situation and the need to seek out help. Perhaps they were trying to be non-exploitive or stay business as usual. While that approach may be the best for them, this event calls that strategy in to question. Since the issue of depression is clearly a continuing conversation, we would certainly want these organizations to consider another approach that is more visible and aggressive.
  • If your organization or client has relevant experts on specific topics, is there a system in place to identify them and reach them at any time of day? Do they live anywhere near a major city or even a town with network affiliates? Do they have web conferencing on their phone or laptop? Do the key cable and network bookers know who they are? Do they have something short and clear written to send out in real-time about their expertise/field of study? All these questions should be answered in advance of need.
  • Does your organization or client have a local aspect to a story (e.g., in this case, the Bay Area?) or do they have personal stories that could be shared (as the CNN and Forbes bloggers did within hours). Having an understanding of who your experts are expedites the process of local and personal communications.

Exploration of the mental health system, the issues around depression, suicide and substance abuse will be the day two, three and four stories. That’s a good thing. Watch carefully who is positioned as an expert, who bylines the op-eds and blog posts on the subject and see if you can tell how that NGO or university or hospital had a plan in place. A conversation of this importance deserves to be had and prepared for.

Lisa Kovitz is an executive vice president and media relations expert in Edelman’s New York office