The story of copper heiress Huguette Clark (left) has all the makings of a soon-to-be optioned movie. Clark was a Manhattan heiress with an estimated $300 million fortune and no direct heirs of her own, who lived in seclusion on Fifth Avenue. In 1991 she was admitted to Beth Israel, a leading New York hospital, and continued to live there until her death in 2011 at the age of 104. During her stay she gave the hospital some $4 million in donations, not counting the $1,200 a day she paid daily in out-of-pocket expenses.
Beth Israel is now on the receiving end of a legal suit launched on behalf of the heiress’s distant relatives. Their accusation? That the vulnerable heiress was subjected to a relentless fundraising campaign that included showering her with trivial gifts and exercising undue influence to encourage the donation of cash and highly valuable art. The case will be heard in September.
So far, Beth Israel has declined comment, referring the media to its publicly available legal filings. “Having provided lifesaving and compassionate care to a person of Ms. Clark’s wealth, it would have been surprising if Beth Israel had not approached her for donations . . . the amount of money she gave to Beth Israel was not very large, considering her vast wealth,” the filings state matter-of-factly. Hardly a face-saving PR strategy, for one of New York’s major hospitals.
THE PR VERDICT: “F” (Full Fiasco) to Beth Israel for a truly disastrous response.
THE PR TAKEAWAY: Separate PR from legal. Relying on filed defenses for a PR response is only tempting the fates. While wise to decline to comment on the specifics, why not reaffirm that Clark was a beloved and admired patient at the hospital during her twenty-year stay? Express regret that the distant relatives have decided to launch civil proceedings over donations that have been put to good use (and then mention what $4 million has bought). Above all, avoid saying it wasn’t very much anyway. Huguette Clark is unlikely to have agreed with Beth Israel’s assessment – $4 million, even in her book, was presumably not chump change.
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