Letter Rip: Send That Letter to the Editor

Research, Customization will Increase Your Odds of Success

The letter to the editor, alongside its big brother, the op-ed, is a tried-and-true earned media tactic. And for good reason: letters are reader-contributed, run the gamut of topics that are news-based and “evergreen,” and are generally short, which means they get read. On top of all that, newspapers publish several every day, and as a result have a solid appetite for good ones.

Frequently appearing in hyper-local markets, letters can be a significant consumer marketing tool. They are effective for a variety of reasons:

  • Educating the public (or correcting the record) about a specific health concern, issue or controversy
  • Creating/enhancing name/brand recognition within the target area
  • Establishing the client’s reputation as an authority on the specific topic or issue
  • Reinforcing the client or organization as a caring and concerned member of its local community(s)

Establish Goals, and Don’t Self-Promote

SPRYTE has had great success with well thought-out, well-researched letter to the editor campaigns on behalf of various clients, frequently publishing the same letter in a number of newspapers across the country, under different bylines, where clients have local offices or franchises, for example.

But the letter to the editor isn’t low-hanging fruit. Success hinges on several factors, not the least of which is the skill of the writer. While the urge is to get your organization’s or client’s name out prominently and positively, editors will see right through letters that are too self-promotional. Writers need to constantly ask the question, “What will the paper’s readers get out of this?” More precisely, what public good can we provide, or what useful or compelling information can we share? What important topic or viewpoint can we open readers’ eyes to?

As with just about all earned media tactics, it’s useful to lay out your goals first, then let them inform the content of your letter. If your goal is to inform readers, make sure to include facts and/or statistics. If you want to thank or bring attention to a group, highlight the problem the group or individuals have helped to solve, and what they’ve accomplished. And if your goal is to weigh in on a subject that’s being widely covered and thus gain thought-leadership credibility, be sure to base your argument on established facts and logic.

Best Practices for Your Letter to the Editor

Here are some more tips from SPRYTE’s playbook for leveraging letter to the editor campaigns:

Avoid high-traffic times of year. Saluting mothers on Mother’s Day, or veterans on Veteran’s Day or Memorial Day will put your letter into intense competition for space. Same with the winter holidays (resist that New Year’s resolutions self-help letter). Instead, if you’d like to peg your letter to a significant or recurring event, set your sights on less prominent days, such as an obscure anniversary, a lesser-known holiday, or an organization milestone that no one else can claim. In recent years, SPRYTE has jumped on Peace Officers Memorial Day, “Juneteenth,” POW-MIA Recognition Day, and National Caregivers Day, generating dozens of published letters.

Move fast. If you want to respond to a published article, or give your take on a topic in the news, waiting even a few days can make your letter to the editor stale. Monitor media coverage that’s relevant to your organization’s expertise, and get the wheels spinning for a letter the day the story runs. Submit it the next day or within 48 hours. And don’t forget to reference the specific article in your letter.

Follow the rules. Many papers have specific guidelines for letter writers, so read them and follow them. Words might be limited to 200 or even 150, so make every word count. (In general, shorter letters or more likely to be used in any case.) Some publications require you to e-mail your letter to a specific department or editor, and others have online submission forms. Submit in the prescribed format to give your letter to the editor the best chance of being used. And some papers specifically state they don’t run general “thank you” letters, or letters that don’t respond to a specific article that was published, so make note of those restrictions too.

Customize your letter. If you’ve gone to the trouble to write a letter to the editor, take the time to adapt it for every newspaper/market you’re submitting it to. Include the local office location and healthcare professional’s name, for example, rather than the CEO of the national organization. Name the city and reference the local issue if applicable. This will greatly increase the chance of your letter getting used.

Be available. Just about every paper has a letter verification process to ensure validity, and that might include a phone call or e-mail to or from the letter writer confirming contact information, city of residence and organization. Make sure the person who signs the letter to the editor is aware they might be contacted, or might proactively have to call a number to verify.

Manage expectations. Even if you get a canned e-mail that says your letter to the editor is being considered for publication, you’re only at second base. Your letter might be pushed out due to lack of space, competing, more timely topics, or a more insightful (or entertaining) letter on the same subject. Then again, if your letter is more of an evergreen, it could run days or even weeks letter when you’re not expecting it.

Letters to the editor can be a powerful tool in the healthcare communicator’s arsenal. They can build your reputation, influence public opinion, spur changes in behavior, and, as part of a bigger campaign, possibly even influence public policy. So letter rip!

 

Social Workers Bring Help and Hope

For Them, Caring is a Calling

“Never, never, be afraid to do what’s right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

What is it that makes social workers tick? With March being National Social Work Month, we at SPRYTE thought what better time to delve into some of their motivations and inclinations?

For healthcare communicators, who are often tasked with showcasing the conscience of their organization – whether through corporate social responsibility programs, employee communications, or thought leadership initiatives – understanding how and why social workers do what they do can help shine a bright light on the path ahead.

For Episcopal Community Services’ Neibert Richards, MSW, LSW, it was always about caring and people.

“I originally went to school to major in nursing, but soon after I arrived, the school decided to phase out the major,” she recalls. After that, she was undecided as a major. That’s about the time she was introduced to the opportunity presented by social work.

“The biology and all the other classes just weren’t fitting with what I wanted to do,” says Richards. But the idea of helping others was clearly a guiding force.

 

A Caring Tradition

Those roots run deep. Her father was a minister. Her mother, a teacher. There were four children in all. The family moved to the U.S. from Guyana when she was eight.

“Family was always a huge factor for me,” Richards says. “I was always longing for connections, wanting to know who my cousins are. I was the one who always had an issue when someone couldn’t come to be with the family for the holidays.”

Soon after getting her Master’s in Social Welfare, she joined Episcopal Community Services (ECS), where she signed onto the foster care program. Today, 22 years later, she is Director of Permanent Housing at ECS.

 

Changing Times

Over the years, there have been many changes in the way social workers are viewed, she says.

“I think the career path is better organized. Social workers are viewed more as true professionals.” she says.

Hopefully, that view will supplant what Jeanne Morrison, MSW, Support Services Director for Crossroads Hospice & Palliative Care in Philadelphia, says is probably the biggest misperception people have about social workers.

“Lots of times, people use the term ‘social worker’ for someone who is actually a caseworker,” explains Morrison. “Especially in child welfare situations, there is a belief that it’s the social worker who is there to take the child away.  The reality is that the social worker’s goal is to keep families together whenever possible.”

 

Looking at Strengths

Morrison notes that social workers are trained to evaluate clients from a strength standpoint – whether it’s the family, an individual, or a group dynamic. The initial goal is to identify existing strengths that can be built upon to help address certain issues that the client is facing.

She says the effort is a true collaborative partnership between the social worker and the client.

To do that effectively, it’s important “to meet people where they are,” she says. “In order to identify their hopes and plans, you need to understand things from their standpoint. You can’t expect people to come to you. If you do, you’ll get nowhere fast. But if you can understand and meet them where they are, you can start identifying their hopes and dreams from that stanpoint.”

 

Next Generation of Social Workers

Emily Blumenthal is a student at the George Warren Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis currently working toward her degree in social work.

She says the holistic perspective that social workers are trained to utilize is one of the things that led her in this direction.

“As a social worker, you’re trained to look at the environment the individual is in – you need to pay attention to who they’re surrounded by, family, friends, whatever is going on. It’s important to get the whole perspective,” she says.

Blumenthal is currently in the midst of a practicum with Perinatal Behavioral Health Service working with pregnant women with mood disorders or depression, doing screenings and providing information in a clinical setting. Following this, she will move on to another practicum (focus to be determined) that will last about a year. The experience will provide her with a broader base of training and insights that will assist in a future career decision.

She says her ultimate goal is to go into counseling, perhaps working with young adults, couples, and young famiies. But she’s confident that her background and training in social work will enable her to choose from a number of options.

 

Remembering what’s Important

For ECS’ Neibert Richards, that diversity of opportunity is one of social work’s greatest strengths.

“Social workers are a lot of people who care about helping others, giving someone a helping hand to advance to the next stage of life so they can move in a positive direction,” she says.

“They’re the ones, walking the streets, counting the homeless every year for HUD,” Richards explains. “They’re the ones who have no problem going into a home that’s drug-infested, letting someone know that we have a bed here, the kids can come. They’re trying to get them to think beyond this life that they’re in. It isn’t easy for them. Social workers do it because they care.”

For healthcare communicators, when you’re telling your story, caring and people are usually good places to begin as well.

Podcasting: Is it a Good Fit?

Practical Considerations for Healthcare Podcasters

A few months ago, we touched on the broad topic of Podcasting for Healthcare – and why it’s one of the fastest growing sectors of marketing.

As they say, it’s not rocket science. Getting involved is relatively inexpensive (compared to TV advertising, anyway). It’s a great way to reach a targeted audience. Furthermore, your targets probably are more open to listening to the message you’re presenting. After all, they’ve taken the positive action to sign on to your podcast, and they can listen to it at their leisure. Thus you’ll have a friendly, captive audience while your podcast is running.

But is it right for you? There’s no easy answer – especially for healthcare organizations who face any number of competing challenges within their annual budget considerations.

Why Podcasting?

As part of a recent webinar offered by New England Society for Healthcare Communications (NESHCO), Hartford HealthCare social media specialist Carol Vassar noted that the audience for podcast listeners – which continues to grow by 21% to 24% per year – is probably within health marketers’ sweet spot.

Most podcast listeners are within the 18 to 54 age range (the audience leans slightly male). In addition, the typical listener is affluent, well-educated and is increasingly likely to prefer ad-free or ad-light experiences.

Setting Goals

To determine if podcasting is a god fit, as in any marketing effort, it’s essential to establish clear goals. What is it you want to accomplish by developing a podcasting initiative? In addition, you need to have a clear vision of what success will look like.

There are a number of additional questions you need to ask yourself before embarking on a podcasting adventure. How well does the idea of podcasting mesh with your overall marketing strategy? If you’re heavy into content creation and digital marketing, podcasting could be a perfect fit.

Content is Still King

As earned media specialists, we at SPRYTE are very partial to content marketing. What is the story you are trying to tell? In any kind of communication designed to persuade – whether it’s to get a sale, get a vote, earn a positive opinion – the most effective communication will be that which tells the most convincing and relatable story. If you’re already creating great content for other pieces of your marketing effort, such as for newsletters (digital or print) and social media, you’ve already got a head start in creating an effective podcasting platform.

The more clearly you can delineate who your target audiences are, the better you will be able to adapt your content to best match their needs and interests. Who is it you are trying to reach?  Young or soon-to-be-mothers? Weekend warriors? People dealing with cancer or heart disease? Individuals experiencing issues related to behavioral health?

Depending on who you are trying to reach, you will want to craft your message so that it resonates. (For example, for a hospital, your planned podcast may feature an interview with a medical specialist discussing a new treatment or service offering, or a hot healthcare news topic.) Wonderful patient success stories (made suitably anonymous) almost always fill the bill when it comes to assuring a great audience response. (A dose of media training for on-air talent is also recommended.)

The Podcast Team

No doubt you will want to include an experienced writer who can help you outline or script out what will be said during the podcast. Keep in mind that writing for the ear is different from writing for the reader. It’s shorter. And sharper.

You should also make sure to have a host who has interviewing experience and is able to get your expert to discuss important information in a listener-friendly way. (Radio experience is usually a good fit.)

It’s also important to have a good graphic designer on your team to ensure that covers and advertising are professional-looking and attractive when they are presented on iTunes, Stitcher or another potential distributor.

Finally, you’ll need dependable experts to assist you in audio production and technical support. Taking raw audio and getting it into a format that’s presentable takes a special production talent. Technical aspects such as timing segments appropriately, selecting music (if desired) and getting the product ready for an RSS or XML Feed to the listener’s podcaster all take very specialized creative skills.

Getting Started – The Technical Basics

Generally speaking, creating a podcasting initiative is relatively inexpensive. (But not free.) In addition to a hosting service, which will likely run about $20 a month, the basic equipment you will need to produce your own podcast includes a microphone, headphones, and recording and editing equipment.

Both Carol Vassar (NESHCO webinar) and a recent Wall Street Journal review singled out Blue Yeti as a high quality microphone brand ideal for podcasting. It can plug directly into your computer’s USB. Cost-wise it runs around $130.

High quality headphones are essential so that you can monitor various levels while you’re recording. Sony’s studio-quality MDR-7506 headphones ($99-$130) are an option again recommended by both Vassar and the WSJ. Vassar also recommends the AKG K2450 ($70) and the Audio Technica ATHM20X ($50) as cost-efficient alternatives. Avoid buying headphones where the microphone is attached. It might work well for telephone call centers, but not for radio or podcasts.

As for editing software, there are several good options available. Apple’s GarageBand is one free option that is user-friendly and also compatible with iTunes. Audacity® is free, open source, cross-platform audio software for multi-track recording and editing. Audacity is available for Windows®, Mac®, GNU/Linux® and other operating systems. Finally, Hindenburg is another low-cost editing software made specifically for radio and podcast users that’s easy to use and provides a lot of powerful editing and mixing features.

Those are the basics you will need to get started. Naturally costs will increase if you opt for more creative services such as professional voiceovers, music licensing fees or professional editing services.

As we’ve seen from the recent spate of mergers, acquisitions, affiliations and IPOs, the healthcare marketplace is only getting more competitive.  For healthcare communicators trying to get an edge, podcasting may be a viable and affordable avenue to consider.

Beware the Pay-for-Play

Is that PR Gold in that E-mail, or Iron Pyrite?

No doubt you’ve received that pay-for-play e-mail: a breathless offer to feature your organization on television, or interview your CEO or a doctor on a major healthcare podcast or website.

One such offer recently came to us through our home care client, inviting their participation in a segment on solutions for seniors aging at home. This was for a familiar TV lifestyle program on a well-known basic cable channel, owned by an even bigger entertainment company. At first read, it sounded legitimate; we’ve all seen these types of programs, and they interview people and gin up the latest innovations all the time. There were multiple follow-up calls and e-mails. But closer inspection revealed this was nothing more than pay-for-play…with a hefty five-figure “pay” element attached.

 

Avoiding the Nefarious Quid-Pro-Quo

This quid-pro-quo is nothing new. As mentioned above, we’ve all found them in our inbox, or maybe the junk mail folder. And there’s nothing particularly insidious about a programmer seeking money to say good things about your organization (or allow you to say good things) in front of a large audience. The trouble comes in the level of transparency, or lack thereof.

Even reasonably intelligent people might not quickly discern the offer’s true nature right away, especially when it involves a recognizable or even a household name. We’ve even seen offers to interview a client’s CEO on a national news network, only to learn it’s a freelance former cable journalist who produces the video, then promises to place it – for a four-figure fee – on that network’s sub-site for citizen journalism.

At first glance, such offers are appealing. But then that “too good to be true” skepticism kicks in. Why us? Why now? How’d they get my name? Unfortunately, by the time you find out there’s payment involved, some staffer has wasted time vetting the opportunity, or making a phone call with a long-winded “producer” or “programming assistant.” The proliferation of online media outlets continues to blur the line for both healthcare communicators and consumers themselves as to whether what they’re seeing is earned media or paid-for content.

 

An Issue of Reputation

Worse yet, for all the short-term eyeballs, regularly engaging in pay-for-play opportunities could have a negative effect from a reputation management standpoint. Who among us bestows the same credibility on an advertorial as an earned media placement in a well-known media outlet?

Conversely, some offers are, in fact, legitimate PR opportunities, so turning a skeptic’s eye on all of them might result in a missed golden opportunity. So what’s a harried communications professional to do?

Read the e-mail closely. They might be a few paragraphs down, but you may find the words “symbolic payment,” “stipend,” or “small honorarium” involved. It may ask you to simply subsidize a production fee. But frequently, there will be no mention of remuneration anywhere in the initial outreach, as was the case with the cable lifestyle program.

Look for an “Unsubscribe” link. A true journalist request won’t have one at the bottom, because it’s not needed. Only mass e-mails have to include an opt-out option. This isn’t a sure sign, however, as some savvy companies will send a personal, hand-crafted e-mail, and others simply ignore the law.

See what others are saying. It won’t take much effort to find other professionals’ feedback on this company or that program. Those who’ve been misled or victimized are often quite vocal in online forums about their experience. When in doubt, solicit peers’ opinions on Linkedin or similar site.

Remember, some offers might be worthwhile. That major online interview isn’t necessarily a scam, as you’re paying a professional to conduct a television-quality piece, edit it, then do the legwork of placing it, where it potentially will be seen by many people. Happens all the time, and some organizations find value in this kind of arrangement, particularly since many viewers aren’t aware they’re watching advertorial content (e.g. an infomercial), especially when it’s running in a medical practice’s waiting room. But again, it comes down to the level of transparency, and at what point the fees are revealed.

Inform your front-line people. Make sure they aren’t dismissing true opportunities simply because they’re not familiar with the outlet, or the person making the request. You don’t want to throw out the golden wheat with the chaff.

In a perfect world, pay-for-play come-ons would show their true stripes from the outset…but that’s probably not effective for their marketers. As healthcare communications professionals, it’s on us to vet such opportunities and counsel our clients before a C-level executive or star doctor gets visions of instant fame and easy national exposure in their head.