When Things Go Wrong in your Media Event

Planning can make all the difference – most of the time

There are many considerations when arranging a media event for your hospital or health system. It’s really not unlike a wedding reception. You spend a great amount of time on planning and want everything to be just right. The naïve believe that anything can be accomplished with proper planning. Realists, meanwhile, roll their eyes and know that it’s impossible to anticipate every little detail. This is where goals meet reality – where the rubber meets the road so to speak.

Anyone who has ever engaged a planner and thrown a big party such as a wedding reception can probably attest that months of planning cannot guarantee everything goes just right. Same holds true for media events. This is not to say that planning is futile. It just means that you have to be prepared for some unplanned circumstance. And if something bad happens, don’t fight it. Consider the instructions for being caught in a rip tide: swim parallel to the beach until you are out of it.

If something goes wrong, rise above it!

Recently, a series of media events in and around Philadelphia was effectively shut down by protestors. The noise-makers were afforded the freedom to protest, even though it negated best-laid plans and ensured the events would make the news for all the wrong reasons. In cases like this, the instinct may be to try and remedy the situation, but be careful not to make matters worse. For example, stepping in to try and stop protesters would make for great TV news video but could be dangerous and quite possibly damaging to your organization’s reputation.

Fortunately, strong planning can eliminate many problems. Basic considerations when planning a media event include venue, time, audience, guests, refreshments, security, media coverage, competing events, spokespeople, audio/video, promotion (before/during/after), and measurement. It may be a great time of year to hold an outdoor event. Go for it! Just be sure to have a backup plan. We recently had to move a sponsorship announcement indoors due to rain (the forecast 24 hours prior looked perfect).

Soon after identifying the need for a media event, conduct a kick off meeting where you can list all of the considerations. From that list, assign responsibilities.

Do not go it alone!

Try to set the date at least a week in advance in order to properly plan and execute. Try to conduct brief daily meetings so the team can report on preparations and identify problem areas. We understand the world doesn’t always afford a week. While it’s possible to condense the preparation window, know that some things may be off the table (bye bye ice sculptures and VIP guests!).

Huddle up, discuss, rinse/repeat

Finally, when your (hopefully successful) event is over, call the team back together for a lessons-learned meeting, or what the government calls a “hot wash.” This is often overlooked but EXTREMELY IMPORTANT. This meeting will allow you to measure success and identify missed opportunities. One example from personal experience: everything goes perfectly until the Q&A session at the end. Crickets. The lesson learned: have a few canned questions ready to go in the audience for such an occasion.

Be sure to formalize all of the lessons in writing it and refer to them the next time you plan an media event. This protocol can also be used for other occasions such as town halls or other high-profile events.

With a little lead time and lots of thought, you will be able to conduct a successful event while keeping stress levels down.

When a Patient Becomes a Cause

Chart a Course of Compassion, Professionalism

The recent, heartbreaking story of Charlie Gard, the U.K. infant whose parents battled to keep him on life support and seek experimental treatment for his genetic disorder in the U.S., over the objection of his doctors, highlights an issue that all healthcare organizations need to think about.

“What happens when our patient becomes a cause célèbre?”

Wikipedia defines “cause célèbre” as “an issue or incident arousing widespread controversy, outside campaigning, and heated public debate. The term is particularly used in connection with celebrated legal cases.” Sometimes, the célèbre part becomes literal, with celebrities voicing opinions on one side or the other.

In the case of little Charlie, everyone from Donald Trump to Cher to Pope Francis weighed in to either offer assistance to the family or implore the hospital to bend to the wishes of the parents. There was massive public pressure on an institution that sincerely believed they were making the best medical decision given the circumstances – and which was no doubt concerned about their legal liability should the baby die when removed from their premises.

This kind of wellspring of sentiment, public opinion and media coverage is, fortunately, rare. But even stories that don’t generate words from world leaders or pop icons can become maelstroms at the local or regional level should word get out that a patient or their family is being “denied” free will or certain rights by a hospital, particularly where end-of-life is concerned. And usually, it’s the family – or one member – purposely trying to support their cause when they clash with the hospital or another relative. Telling your tale of perceived oppression to a TV reporter can be a powerful way to influence public opinion…and exert pressure on the other party.

When the “Correct” Thing isn’t the Popular Thing

When this happens, healthcare organizations need to tread lightly. Aside from navigating HIPAA rules on patient confidentiality, communications staff must deal with the natural human belief that we all have final authority over our personal health, or that of our children. Then there’s the legal aspect: doing the morally “correct” thing may be in opposition to legal requirements. For example, the compassionate move may be to take a patient who is virtually brain dead off life support, but the patient may have an advance directive prohibiting it, or in the absence of one, family advocates opposing it.

In the case of Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman who was in a persistent vegetative state, her husband and legal guardian sought to remove her from life support while her parents fought to prolong her life artificially. Prolonged legal battles, with the hospital and Schiavo’s doctors as key witnesses, caused a seven-year delay before her feeding tube was ultimately removed in 2005. Her name remains a flash point for patient and spousal rights.

The Eye of the Storm

So what to do when there’s a clash among family, or between family and hospital that becomes public? While each case will be different, here are some basics to bear in mind:

  • Designate a single spokesperson for the hospital or organization, but be careful in your choice. An executive might come off as more concerned with preserving reputation than the good of the patient or family, while the treating physician can credibly fall back on what’s best clinically in the circumstances. Think long and hard before trotting out a lawyer to speak for the organization.
  • Remember HIPAA. Talking specifics of a particular patient’s care is a no-no, even if the family is going in front of every reporter they can find. Limit comments to policy, protocol, and information already published elsewhere.
  • Expect fallout, and be ready for it. One of the best ways to defend your organization amid a public hue and cry is to demonstrate that you are adhering to standard procedures and protocols, and there’s nothing different or personal in the case at hand. The public needs to see that your organization acts legally and professionally, even if they disagree with your stance.
  • Be available. Despite the heat, offer opportunities for the media to have their questions answered, either one-on-one or during a press conference. Don’t bury your head in the sand.
  • Stay off social media. There’s little to be gained, and much to lose with a misstep, by posting or tweeting in a sensitive situation. However do share any public statements you’ve issued after you’ve disseminated them by other, more traditional means.
  • Know when to fold ‘em. Sometimes, a story will wane after a news cycle or two, or when the public gets consumed by something else. Don’t proactively reignite it through unsolicited statements. If courts are involved, don’t go out with news of even favorable rulings, but be prepared with a statement if the media seek you out.

Things can get highly charged when a controversial patient comes through your door or emotion clashes with clinical care. No institution wants to be in a volatile situation, but if a patient does become a cause, level heads and a reliance on existing protocols will keep you on the high ground.

Earned Media Lessons for Missing Links

Quick question: Do you remember who the coolest kids in your high school were? More importantly, do you remember who got to decide who the coolest kids in school were?

Sometimes it seems we’re never going to stop getting asked such questions – especially for those of us who do earned media and content marketing for a living.

The modern day version of that first question is: How do you know if your website is popular? The answer is simple: Because Google says so.

That’s only a slight exaggeration. Since its founding in 1998, when Google introduced the notion of using ranked backlinks to determine a website’s importance (as opposed to the then-predominant method of counting how many times a search term appeared on a given page) the importance of backlinks has continued to guide Google’s approach to website rankings and search engine optimization (SEO).

The Example of Earned Media

An underlying tenet of an effective earned media strategy is that gaining independent recognition and/or support for your company, product or service provides stronger and more effective validation than paid advertising. Who are you more likely to believe – an unaffiliated third-party who says positive things about a company, or a paid company spokesperson?

An effective backlink strategy starts from the same premise. Over the years, Google has developed and refined its algorithms so sites that utilize artificial SEO enhancement strategies (paying for backlinks, stacking keywords) are identified and penalized in Google rankings.

In short, backlinks must be earned – just like earned news media. In order to earn backlinks, your website needs to provide organic content that is good enough to earn backlinks. Without legitimate content, third parties have nothing to link to.

Even if your company has earned media recognition in a news story or posting, gaining the additional enhancement of a backlink to your website isn’t guaranteed.

What the News Media Wants

Policies concerning whether or not news entities will link to the websites of companies cited in articles vary from organization to organization. Generally speaking, news organizations tend to take a conservative approach. There are several reasons:

Financial: News organizations have been undergoing financial challenges for many years. Many have instituted strict paywalls that require readers to subscribe before accessing news from their sites. Unless/until such company links can be monetized, news entities may consider such links as “free advertising.”
Independence/Ethics: Providing links to companies’ websites may be viewed as implying an unwarranted relationship between the news source and the news outlet.
Technical/Time Constraints: Often decisions to include such links are at the discretion of the reporter (depending on the outlet’s policy). However, the actual creation of the link is done by the outlet’s technological team. Busy and harried reporters often don’t have the time to follow-up on such details.

Differing Approaches

Recently SPRYTE Communications surveyed a range of national, regional and local news entities to ascertain editorial policies about providing backlinks to company websites.

Among national news entities we surveyed, the predominant policy was that if a company appeared in a news story, then there may be links to other stories featuring the company or the main issue involved, but not back to the company website.

Regional news entities offered something of a mixed bag. Many followed the guideline noted above – by linking to other stories the news entity wrote about the company or the issue on which the article focused. In addition, it was noted that company backlinks potentially might be viewed as a form of (unpaid) advertising for the company covered – thereby casting suspicion on editorial independence or risking the wraith of paying advertisers.

Other regional news entities will link to specific information on a company’s website if it provides additional information that is directly relevant to the story. For example, a large Midwest city paper ran an online story about a volunteer recruiting effort by one of our clients, a national hospice provider. It included a link to a volunteer sign-up page on our client’s site, and one to the page of a national hospice nonprofit information group that described Medicare regulations concerning the percentage of hospice care that must be provided by volunteers.

Local news entities likewise offered mixed reactions. One local TV station in the Midwest noted that when possible, stories posted online will contain links to organizations and companies that feature prominently in their stories, particularly if it’s a local “good news” story. Other TV outlets, particularly in larger metropolitan markets, rotate their stories so quickly that incorporating backlinks would be too difficult and time-consuming.

Conclusion

Many news organizations are wary that providing a backlink to a company featured in a news story might appear to provide an undue commercial endorsement. At a time when many news organizations are facing serious financial challenges just to stay in business, it’s a consideration that can’t be ignored.

However, you can increase your chances of getting a backlink if you can point to content on your website that provides important additional information or details that enhance the earned media story that features your company.

If your content is worthy enough, a reporter may recognize its value and provide a sought-after backlink to that relevant information, thereby gaining the much-desired enhanced SEO creds.

Understanding and supplying what news outlets are looking for are routine tasks for experienced earned media professionals. Developing content that effectively balances what the media want while promoting the interests of our clients is where we earn our keep.

Laying Down a Grassroots Campaign

Enlist Local Docs to Help

When you’re working with a healthcare client that’s national in scope, or has a broad network of ambulatory care facilities or franchise offices, it’s important to get “boots on the ground” in the communities in which they operate. Often, the best way to do this is with a “grassroots” campaign – one that delivers your messages to prospective patients or clients at the local-facility level.

It’s wonderful to get a feature story in a major newspaper in the organization’s home territory, or an interview with the CEO in a prominent healthcare trade publication. But it takes a small-town touch to actually drive people to seek care or a consultation at your client’s facility, or attend a community health event that the local office is hosting or sponsoring.

This takes legwork. It can be daunting learning the demographics and characteristics of healthcare consumers in many disparate places, let alone the local media landscape. In addition, smaller regional media are far more likely to use news or materials generated by a local business, quoting a local doctor, than a national or distant company with an out-of-market spokesperson. For these reasons, it’s helpful to enlist the real boots on the ground…the managers of the facilities or franchises themselves.

Use Your Collective

Like Star Trek’s Borg, think of the health organization and its far-flung facilities as a collective, individual entities offering the same services and sharing similar goals. What’s good for one benefits all. They don’t have to “assimilate” patients to thrive, but even a positive media placement for one local franchise can benefit others in the area through increased name recognition.

Empower the facilities to assist with their own publicity, and give them the information and tools to do so. This might mean suggesting events or initiatives that have worked in other areas, with tips on how to customize them for their own. It may include creating an online resource center where physicians or managers can retrieve company information and template (or “swiss cheese”) materials they can adapt for their own media outreach. And it might mean providing them with media contact information.

Templates, with explicit instructions on how to customize them, could include:

  • News releases
  • Media advisories
  • Opinion columns
  • Blog entries
  • Letters to the editor

Typically, they’d just fill in details like the physician’s or spokesperson’s name, the locality, office address/phone number, and contact information if the media has any questions. Of course, there might be other pertinent fields to be customized depending on the content of the item.

Letter Rip!

SPRYTE has been using templates successfully for our clients for many years. Most recently, we’ve been helping Griswold Home Care enlist its 200-plus franchises to support the company’s messages surrounding its 35th anniversary year. We created several materials that were passed along to franchise owners in an internal marketing webinar, but the letter to the editor has been the one to take off.

The letter noted the founding of the company in 1982 by Jean Griswold and its mission to provide empathetic care to keep seniors and the disabled and infirmed in their homes. It also brought home the idea that although their franchise hasn’t been around quite as long, it proudly fulfills the founder’s vision every day, and saluted the caregivers – both paid professionals and unpaid family members – who provide comfort and aid.

While the official anniversary was in April, the letter was written as an evergreen that can be used for the rest of the year, and has appeared in newspapers in Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania. Florida and Kentucky. The response has been so encouraging, Griswold has begun individually reaching out to franchise owners with the offer to customize and distribute it on their behalf, an option to consider if you have the staff to do it.

There are, of course, many ways to conduct grassroots publicity for your organization. When many locations are concerned, this is one that’s proven effective time and again. It gives the media what they most want – locally generated content – and it’s easy to facilitate. And it has the added benefit of reinforcing for your “collective” that the mothership is looking out for them.

Pulse Anniversary Reminds Us of Crisis Preparedness

Orlando Health Did Very Well

Next Monday is June 12th, the one year anniversary of the horrific tragedy at the Pulse Night Club in Orlando, Florida, where 49 innocent individuals lost their lives and many, many more were injured.

SPRYTE Communications was fortunate to recently be in Orlando at the Public Relations Society of America’s Health Academy annual conference and to attend the pre-conference session on America’s worst terrorist attack, delivered by Orlando Health’s Director of Public Affairs/Media Relations Kena Lewis, APR, and Heather Fagan, Deputy Chief of Staff for the City of Orlando.

Orlando Regional Medical Center (ORMC), one of Orlando Health’s eight hospitals, is just three blocks and less than half a mile from Pulse.  It is Central Florida’s only Level One Trauma Center.

The first shots were fired at 2 am, the first patient arrived at ORMC at 2:14 am and the first media update was at 5 am.

But it wasn’t the first time ORMC or the city had planned for a major emergency with massive casualties.

According to Fagan, the City of Orlando routinely conducts “table top” regional training exercises.  They knew exactly who would take the lead and how to collaborate within minutes of the first shots.  “It was easy to jump in,” as a result she said.

Still there were lessons Fagan and her team at the city learned including:

  •  For consistency and to avoid duplication, assign a single individual to news monitoring.
  •  Record interviews for fact checking and never forget the cameras are always on. Document everything.
  •  Establish relationships with important collaborators outside your organization before you need them.
  •  Know the IT players in your organization before you need to work with them unexpectedly in an emergency.
  •  Put resources in place for multi-cultural and multi-language responses.
  •  Ask yourself, do I have to make this decision today? If not, move on to more urgent matters.

According to Lewis, emergency training is part of ORMC’s culture.  Multi-layered teams simulate trauma alerts at least three times a month.  “Preparedness and drills save lives,” she said.  But you can never plan for the shock and the emotions that result from massive numbers of casualties.

That’s why Lewis’ team has a “Compassion Statement Puzzle.”  This is a guide that makes it easier to draft an appropriate statement for any given incident in the heat of an emergency.  Statements are already started. The practitioner chooses from already drafted phrases in columns such as Introductory Statement, Sentiment and Action Statement.  There are also adjectives and reminders about audiences.  What a great tool.

Lewis was highly complimentary of her team and detailed what worked particularly well during the crisis:

  •  A single email address, mediarelations@orlandohealth.com for inquiries
  •  Having an onsite broadcast studio
  •  Excellent working relationships with the medical center security force
  •  Using ORMC doctors as spokespeople
  •  Engaging freelance videographers and photographers in a flash

Both the City of Orlando and ORMC decided to put the needs and interests of the local media first, acknowledging that local media were relaying critical information to the local community and they were more important than the hundreds of well-resourced national and international media converging on the scene.

Lewis and Fagan’s presentation was followed by a hands-on crisis communications training exercise in a JIC (Joint Information Center) led by one of Broward County, Florida’s Public Information Officers.  It was excellent in spite of the 97 degree heat and 100 percent humidity.

On Monday, Central Florida will observe Orlando United Day.  The SPRYTE Team will be remembering the 49 people who lost their lives on June 12, 2016, and the love and compassion displayed by the diverse, inclusive citizens of Orlando.  Deep down we know this could happen anywhere and that no amount of training and anticipation is enough.   #orlandounited

Taking the Media Out of a Media Event

Can it Still be a Success without Cameras?

There are publicity stunts, and photo opportunities.  Events designed for maximum media coverage and events with a greater purpose, which the media might cover.  Sometimes photographers and reporters will come out, but even if they don’t, is there enough meat to your happening to call it successful?  Put another way, if a tree falls in a forest and a journalist doesn’t cover it, did it still fall?

The answer, in every case, should be Yes!

Sometimes, organizations stage events to mark significant milestones, to thank employees, or to engage the community.  Healthcare organizations especially are steeped in the culture of giving back, educating their target customers, raising awareness, or raising funds for a new piece of equipment or new clinical service.  These events may not always pay dividends with a picture in the paper or a story on the evening news, but if there’s an organic reason for hosting it in the first place, it can soften the blow of having no media attend.

Not a Zero-Sum Game

SPRYTE client Griswold Home Care, marking its 35th anniversary, chose to kick off a series of events throughout the year with a luncheon for employees and its network of caregivers, partners and vendors. Lunch was followed with a group walk in a nearby park, with matching anniversary T-shirts and a raffle to benefit its nonprofit foundation, named for the company’s founder, Jean Griswold.

Local elected officials were invited to attend, and the media were alerted. Materials noting the anniversary, including a press release and letter to the editor, were made available to its 200-plus franchise operators to use in their local territories.

Even though no cameras showed for the walk, by all accounts the event was a rousing success.  Caregivers felt appreciated, employees had a morale boost (and a break from their routine), and money was raised for the Griswold Foundation.  Some lucky employees went back to the office with prizes, including a FitBit and gift cards.

The company’s executives were thrilled to receive a proclamation saluting the anniversary, read in person by the county commissioner, and a handsome certificate noting the occasion from a U.S. senator.  Both will be framed and hung in the office lobby.  A local community paper committed to run some photos, and franchise-generated stories appeared in Florida and Delaware.

Could this event have been more successful had a TV station shown up? Not if you ask the employees. Would its presence have been a bonus? Sure, but that wasn’t essential to what was conceived as a company celebration for employees and other internal audiences.

Assess Your Goals

Communications professionals need to ask several questions when planning an event:

  • What is the main purpose of this event, and who will it benefit?
  • What will a successful event look like? (e.g. large number of people, money raised, social media engagement, media turnout)
  • Is the event worth having and can it stand on its own even if no media show up?
  • Can the content of the event be repurposed for internal or external use, like photos for an annual report, company newsletter, e-blast or social media?

If you have a clear idea of what kind of event your healthcare organization wants to do and what the higher purpose is, and you execute it the best you can, it will be a success, whether media show up or not.

Building Relationships with Healthcare Journalists

The More You Know, the More They Want You on Speed Dial

Capturing the attention of a healthcare reporter is the age-old challenge for health communications professionals.  But you can improve your odds if you remember the “relations” part of public relations.

In a recent webinar hosted by the New England Society of Healthcare Communications (NESHCo), of which SPRYTE is a member, Jessica Bartlett, the healthcare reporter for the Boston Business Journal, shared her advice for building mutually beneficial relationships with reporters.

Her tips go beyond the healthcare industry; touching on, for example, simple ways to stay in contact with reporters so they’ll be more likely to read your next pitch.

These days, that means following the reporter on social media, primarily Twitter in Bartlett’s case, getting a sense of what kind of stories they write, and where their passions lie, both professionally and outside of the newsroom.  Open a friendly dialogue, like and retweet their tweets (tagging the reporter), and above all, reach out occasionally when you’re NOT pitching a story, to share something of interest, or to compliment a recent story.

That’s a great way to build your creds as a friendly source, but with a growing universe of journalists covering every industry, it’s not practical with everyone.  At minimum, you should look at social media profiles and read recent articles by reporters you want to pitch.

Bartlett is not unlike other healthcare business writers in the topics she likes to cover. These include:

  • Growths/mergers/acquisitions
  • Hiring/layoffs
  • Groundbreaking science with business implications
  • Financial changes
  • Lawsuits
  • Policy proposals with large scale ramifications
  • Executive changes
  • Local takes on national hot healthcare topics
  • Analysis of healthcare trends with large impact

Before sending the pitch, ask yourself whether your story will interest a large number of people, is healthcare related, and above all, why it is important now.  Bartlett notes she’s far more likely to open and consider a pitch, among the hundreds she receives weekly, when there’s a timely element.

Her point speaks to a reality of journalism: breaking news is always hot, while more “evergreen” stories — even those with merit — get relegated to the back burner.  Although print deadlines and print publications are still foundational in our industry, daily e-mail blasts and the online publication need constant feeding, so timely content is always welcome – and prioritized.

Keep in mind a good journalist relationship should go both ways.  The writer will know you’re “in the know” about your clients and can put her in touch with appropriate spokespeople quickly; and you’ll be more comfortable when responding to negative news or discussing controversial issues, like a strike or lawsuit.

Remember, too, that from the journalist’s point of view, being first is only second to being accurate.  So if you can respond quickly, preferably before anyone else, you’ll be much more likely to get your organization included.  And the reporter will be more inclined to reach out to you the next time. That’s what media relations is all about.

3T’s of Media Relations

Timing, Topic and Targeting

For those who have experienced a loss, the holidays can be a time of intense sadness. While others are celebrating, bereaved people can feel overwhelmed by memories of loved ones, avoiding festive gatherings or isolating themselves from friends and family.

SPRYTE Communications’ client, a multi-regional hospice and homecare organization, saw the winter Holiday Season as an ideal time to implement a media relations campaign targeted to individuals dealing with what is too often dismissed as “the holiday blues.” The campaign goals were to educate the bereaved about what they were experiencing and to provide professional coping tips while establishing the hospice as a trusted provider.

The campaign exemplifies what SPRYTE believes are the fundamentals of effective media relations programs – working within select timeframes, clearly communicating the significance of your topic, and adapting the message for your specific audiences. To help clients (and staff) remember these fundamentals, we created alliterative shorthand – what we call the Three T’s of Media Relations: Timing, Topic and Targeting.

Timing: When you’re creating a media relations campaign around a specific holiday, there is a critical window of opportunity to launch it. Planning ahead is essential – even six months or more. We began developing our message and selecting our media targets in mid-August. This gave us time to work with our client’s spokespeople and fine-tune the pitch to the respective outlets.

Topic: How to frame the topic is a second key media relations element. The narrative must be attention-grabbing and relevant to the season, the media being pitched and ultimately the end-user. SPRYTE worked closely with the hospice’s bereavement counselors in five service regions covering Philadelphia’s northern suburbs and seven counties in southern New Jersey to create a 10-point list of ways to help people cope with bereavement during the holidays. This list was included in a Letter to the Editor that was customized and bylined by each bereavement counselor. It included their hospice affiliations and a toll-free number readers could call for more information about bereavement counseling and support groups.

Targeting: The third key element of a media relations campaign is targeting. We carefully researched primary media outlets, as well as relevant online influencers in each of the local markets. In cases where service regions abutted, extreme care was taken to ensure that each bereavement counselor’s message was distributed only within his or her respective region.

Our media relations efforts generated more than 525,000 impressions during the limited window from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day. The results included published Letters to the Editor, as well as articles resulting from interviews arranged with local editors and reporters. The published pieces included placements in eight key local newspapers and an independent story by a local reporter that was posted on three neighboring Patch.com sites in the Ocean County, NJ, area and was also published online by the national trade publication Hospice Times.

The media relations campaign achieved its desired business goals of educating the general public about holiday bereavement during the holidays, establishing local hospice counselors as authoritative sources on the subject, and showcasing the hospice as a trusted provider and a caring and concerned member of its many local communities.