Alumna Sandi Smith outlines organ donor awareness at Walt Fisher Lecture

USC Annenberg alumna Sandi Smith spoke about the reasons for the growing number of people in need of organ transplants during the eighth annual Walt Fisher Lecture at USC Annenberg.

Smith, who presented about “A story within a story: Social influence and organ donation” on March 22, said there were about 35,000 people on the waiting list for organs in 1994. Now, she said, there are more than 113,000 people on the waiting list. Most are waiting for a kidney transplant.

“From my perspective, (social scientists) haven’t done a very good job at social influence because that gap keeps getting worse and worse,” said Smith (Ph.D. Communication, ’86), now the director of the Health and Risk Communication Center and a communication professor at Michigan State University. “Medical science has come a long way, and organ donation is completely viable – if we only had enough organ donators.”

Smith said that in states such as California and Michigan, doctors request consent from a deceased person’s family, even if the person had already registered as a donor.

“That’s why it’s so important for donors to talk to family members about their wishes,” she said. “It’s a critical step.”

One positive step in terms of an increase in donor registration occurred when Smith and her team devised a donor rivalry between fans of the Ohio State and University of Michigan football teams.

“You might find it odd that we’re using a rivalry to enhance altruism. Never mind, we’re here at USC, you understand,” Smith said, referencing the Trojan football team’s annual games against UCLA and Notre Dame.

When Twitter, other social media and widgets were added to a traditional donor registration campaign, Smith saw a major increase during the “rivalry” campaign. The year with traditional outreach methods resulted in 224 new organ donors. The next year increased to 451 registrations after Facebook ads were added. In year three, they added a social media component, resulting in 1,756 registrations. Year four included additional share strategies such as Facebook fan pages and widgets that could easily be added to social media and other websites, which resulted in 3,414 registrations.

“The widgets turned into a most interesting thing to me,” she said, adding that widgets featuring the school rivalries resulted in 125 views per time “grabbed,” five times as many as a widget advertisement without the rivalry mentioned.

School of Communication director Larry Gross said the Walt Fisher Lecture combines two important elements. The first is to invite back to campus a distinguished alumnus or alumna. The second is to honor the role and contributions of Walter Fisher, who returned to USC Annenberg to attend the lecture delivered by Smith. Fisher is a USC Annenberg professor emeritus and former School of Communication director.

“Walter, thank you very much for everything you’ve taught me along the way,” Smith said. “Thank you to all the professors in the room who’ve taught me.” Communication professor Margaret McLaughlin, who helped introduce Smith, passed around a photo of herself with her former student at Smith’s 1986 commencement.

Smith also shared advice for the many prospective doctoral students in attendance: “You have a lot of influence over us as professors, and I didn’t realize this as a graduate student,” she said. “You inspire us and help us find new areas to research.”

Fisher agreed.

“I never had time to do all the learning I wanted to do, so I had students do it for me,” he said with a smile.

Photos from the event