Showcase Earned Media to Demonstrate Your Prowess

Attractively Merchandised Results Can Enhance Client Relationships

As healthcare communicators, one of our primary goals is to deliver high quality deliverables for our clients (or employers) in terms of earned media results: print, broadcast, online and owned media. In addition to simply informing our clients about terrific results, showing the results in a clean, crisp format and as quickly as possible – ideally before they happen to see it themselves – is a powerful way to demonstrate our effectiveness and professionalism while enhancing the client’s brand reputation.

The fact that we are able to achieve noteworthy placements and are willing to make the extra effort to keep our clients informed are critical aspects of any client relationship, and our client’s reputation management. We are continuously reminded that healthcare (and healthcare communications) is a competitive business, so we need to appreciate the urgency of demonstrating proven results – for our own benefit, but also for that of our clients.

Here are some helpful hints to keep in mind when merchandising an earned media result.

In any merchandising effort, one needs to be cognizant of copyright restrictions. For a comprehensive discussion of what is allowed and not allowed, you can peruse the U.S. Copyright Office’s Fair Use Index. Generally speaking, it is illegal to reproduce copyrighted material in its entirety for print, online or broadcast use without the express written permission of the copyright owner.

That said, there is also a doctrine of “fair use” that has developed over the years as a result of various court decisions (See section 107 of the copyright law). Even so, the distinction between fair use and infringement is not always clear and/or easily defined. There is no specific number of words, lines, or notes that may be used safely without permission. Citing the source of the copyrighted material does not substitute for obtaining permission.

Best bet – be selective in what you choose to reproduce. Try to provide a sense of how the story appears in the paper, on TV, or online, and what makes it significant. If the story appears online, provide a link to give the reader/client the opportunity to enjoy the full impact of the story.

Print

For print placements, scanning the article as a JPEG is a practical way to show what it looks like in “real life.” You can use Photoshop (or Word’s “Format Picture” option) to maximize the quality by lightening the background (newsprint generally appears grayish) and adjusting the contrast to minimize any “dirty” background when the article is presented. The photo can then be copied into a Word document for further editing.

Again, be aware of copyright restrictions. Rather than showing the entire article, strategically use enough of it so the reader can quickly get a taste of it. Provide a summary of the story that hits the highlights that are most important to your client. Then link to the full piece on the publication’s website. Make sure the media source and date are prominent, and if possible, provide information about the total circulation, audience, or other key demographics.

Online

Online earned media results can be handled in much the same way. The idea is to provide an overview of the story and its visual significance, along with a link to the story itself.  Whenever practical, we try to reflect the way the story appears online.

Broadcast

Broadcast stories can be tricky to merchandise. Again, the goal should be to give a sense of the story and what it’s about. Keep it to one page. If possible, perhaps insert a handful of screenshots from the broadcast video and laid in an attractive way that help to succinctly tell the story. Make sure to identify the station airing the story, the affiliate, the name/time of the show, the date, and, if possible, the audience reach.

Ideally, merchandising efforts will reflect the same high-quality attention and consideration that goes into achieving the earned media placement itself.  Merchandised placements should be powerfully presented, well laid-out, and legible so stories, dates and media sources are clearly discernible.

Make sure it’s legal. Make it interesting. And most importantly, make it attractive and enjoyable to read.

 

Managing Reputation with Bylined Articles

Tap into Doctors’ Expertise to Build Thought Leadership Creds

When SPRYTE learned that a pediatrician at Holy Redeemer Hospital was seeing a spate of concussions relating to youth sports, we sprang into action to warn parents on signs they need to look for. The resulting article under Dr. Avi Gurwitz byline ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer “Expert Advice” column in the Sunday Health section, which is seen by 194,000 readers (not counting online). The twist? Concussions aren’t limited to football, but can be sustained in many spring sports too.

The first-person, “bylined” article by a healthcare professional can be a boon to your organization’s reputation. Whether it appears in a local newspaper or regional lifestyle magazine, getting your physicians’ skills and knowledge out to current and prospective patients should be a goal of any healthcare communicator, and creating thought-leadership articles is a great way to do it. The “third-party endorsement” you gain upon publication is invaluable, as it tells readers that your doctor truly is an expert, and what he or she has to say merits editorial space.

Where are Your Patients Coming From?

Start by determining where your organization’s or practice’s patients come from, and targeting the publications that reach them. Research them, and if you’re already reading them pay attention for opportunities that may be a good fit for your physicians. Daily and weekly newspapers, for example, might run regular health columns called “Expert Advice,” “The Doctor is In,” or “Things To Know,” sometimes in the Sunday health section or a recurring healthcare supplement. Notice whether they use doctor-contributed content, and in what format.

Finding topics is the easy part. Just about every physician has a few hot-button subjects they’re passionate about, or vital information they want patients to know, and are usually happy to share them if you ask. Some might be “evergreen,” but as a communications pro, you might also think seasonally, and offer ideas well ahead of time that fit in with subjects editors and readers will be thinking about. Sparing your back when doing spring gardening or landscaping can be an attractive topic in the first quarter, while minimizing risk of heart attack when shoveling snow is a natural for the winter months.

Once you’ve settled on an idea, you’ll need to flesh it out into an article query. Most editors won’t commit to running your doctor’s article until they actually see it, so you might be writing on-spec, but if you learn the publication’s editorial guidelines and adhere to them, particularly word count, you’ll increase your chances of publication.

Writing for Reputation

Schedule an interview with the doctor, so you can gather and assimilate their knowledge on the subject, determine the key points to make, and even get a sense of their “voice.” Additional background research might be required to write a fully formed article.

Once you’ve written the draft, you’ll have to send it back to the doctor for their review, along with any other internal eyes that might need to see it. But because the article is appearing under their name, the physician should have final say on the content. Be sure to add a one- or two-sentence biography of the author at the end, and offer a high-resolution head shot to the editor in case they run them.

Bylined articles can be a powerful form of reputation marketing, and as such an effective way to influence patients and prospective patients. And, like the Dr. Gurwitz column, they can deliver valuable information on any number of health topics, letting consumers know you’re a community-minded organization.

Build Loyalty with Peer-to-Peer Healthcare Communities

User-Generated Content Helps Patients Thrive

Every hospital and healthcare delivery system wants to build a deep connection with patients, families, and the community. But sometimes far more powerful connections can be formed when the organization takes a step back and allows those audiences to connect with each other with user-generated content.

Cultivating an online community of patients, who share a common condition, disease, or experience, can be an effective way to build loyalty to your organization while delivering helpful information to the group, according to a recent webinar by the New England Society for Healthcare Communications (NESHCO). And the best part is you’re empowering group members to create that content.

 

User-Generated Content is Highly Prized

If you’re considering setting up an online community, the first and overriding question to ask is “What’s in it for them?” Typically, members who join a group, such as one devoted to a specific disease, are seeking:

  • Treatment information – Who’s doing a clinical trial?
  • Practical information – Topics that may not be gleaned easily from clinical experts, such as quality–of-life issues (e.g. “How do I travel cross country for a wedding with my condition?”)
  • Emotional support – camaraderie with others affected by the same thing, like bladder cancer, or cirrhosis.
  • Loyalty – the warmth of the group that gets people coming back because they feel like they’re part of something.

These communities live and die on user-generated content. They should be places of peer-to-peer communication. This is not the forum to promote the health system, provide tips from your physicians, or post an “Ask the Expert” column.

After all, “everyone is an expert in their own condition,” noted John Novack, who oversees the million-member Inspire health and wellness social network. And these de facto experts frequently want to share their knowledge and experiences with others. If members of the group are exchanging information and it’s seamless, they will feel like the community is their own, and that’s good. It can be scary, Novack said, because you’re not controlling the content, but you can be the guiding light.

That means identifying active contributors, and leveraging them (if they want to be leveraged) into community “champions.” These members may already be blogging, speaking, creating videos on YouTube or serving on patient advisory councils.

To build champions, said Colleen Young, community director for Mayo Clinic Connect, “watch their activity and behavior online, and nurture it. Think about rewards – you can never say thank you enough, and there are many ways to thank people.” She adds that simply being given the opportunity to contribute user-generated content can be meaningful “compensation” for those with a voice they want to have heard.

 

Building Connections, Removing Barriers

Here are some more tips from the experts for building a community of user-generated content:

  • Encourage commenting. Every page should allow comments. This will foster engagement, and those asking a question one day will be the same ones answering that question the next.
  • Reduce barriers to get people to engage. Make sure the registration process is easy, and connecting with others is simple. Think of the population you want to attract, and see if there are barriers specific to those members.
  • Consider featuring “boutique” pages or blogs within the community. Think of these as specialty shops within a shopping mall, where visitors can get information specific to them.
  • Moderate, but resist interfering. The Mayo Clinic has a staff of five monitors for Connect, to ensure everyone is respectful and following the rules. Intercede only when necessary, such as when someone starts giving hard-and-fast “thou shalts” or dispensing medical advice that’s not grounded in their own experience.
  • Learn from your community. Not only can members learn from each other, your clinical staff can learn from them. Young recalled how a nursing team monitoring the Mayo community gained a better understanding of what it’s like to be in an epileptic unit, awaiting a seizure. The direct feedback of patients is a great way to see what it’s like on the other side of the gurney.
  • Don’t expect overnight success. When you see a successful community, it looks easy, but the upfront work is hard. You have to nurture it, and this will take time and effort.
  • You don’t have to recreate the wheel. There are online communities like Connect, or Inspire, that you can partner with. If you’re thinking about creating a community, do the research first…you may find an existing community you can hitch your wagon to.

The Internet has created an ability for more people to gather more information about diseases than ever before. Patient-to-patient networking is emerging as a valuable resource. If your healthcare organization is poised to facilitate this, and create a community in which people want to connect and share experiences, wonderful things can happen.

Are Your Doctors Top Docs?

Follow this Process

Top Doctors rankings appear in many regional lifestyle magazines across the country. Here in the Philadelphia area, Philadelphia Magazine features the area’s best practitioners annually, in the May issue. But what’s behind the Top Doctors ratings, and should you be nominating your own physicians?

The short answer is yes. Having multiple Top Doctors from your organization populating the local list delivers cachet to your practice or health system. It says, “our doctors have excellent training and clinical skills, and give superior care and concern to their patients,” and that can be valuable from a reputation management standpoint. Publications that run them online frequently link to their full contact information, and their pictures often appear in print, sometimes on the cover. Some publications archive the best doctors on a searchable online database.

Of course, Top Doctors is also an advertising opportunity, as organizations can extend their honored doctors’ visibility with paid congratulatory notes, expanded doctor profiles or, in the case of Philadelphia Magazine, Q&As or first-person doctor essays. A news release highlighting the organization’s multitude of honorees is yet another option. And social media posts, e-newsletters, and magazine reprints highlighting the honored doctors can extend the life of the list even further.

A Straightforward Process

Unlike some other Best of Lists (e.g. Best Pizza Place, Best Spa) frequently found in these regional publications, Top Doctors are not voted for by readers. Rather, they are often supplied by a third party organization called Castle Connolly, whose only mission is to publish lists and books ranking healthcare professionals. Publications like Philadelphia Magazine subscribe to the service.

According to the Castle Connolly website:

“Physicians can nominate those other doctors whom they feel are the most outstanding in their medical specialties, in any area of medicine and in any part of the country, indicating also whether they believe that the physician is among the best in their region or among the very best in the nation. Also, already-selected Castle Connolly Top Doctors are actively encouraged through various communications to participate in this process as well.”

Doctors are peer-nominated, and cannot nominate themselves. Any licensed MD and DO can submit nominations, in several dozen categories based on specialty. The good news is nominations are free, as are resulting listings in the company’s guides.

The nomination form is exhaustive, requiring detailed biographical information of the doctor. The Castle Connolly team evaluates nomination based on “medical education, training, board certifications, hospital appointments, administrative posts, professional achievements and malpractice and disciplinary history.” Often, they will interview the nominated doctor too.

Castle Connolly’s nomination process is open year-round, and doctors can be selected and recognized on the company’s various websites throughout the year, but you will have to wait until the next Top Doctors issue of your local magazine to see your honored physicians in print. It pays to be mindful of deadlines and editorial calendars, to reduce the lag time between nomination and reaping the benefits of a recognized doctor.

Streamlining Your Top Doctors Nominations

It might also be worthwhile to designate one physician or administrator in your organization to spearhead the nomination process. That might entail polling each department for potential nominees, and choosing a peer or the department head to complete the form. Alternatively, your designated staffer might handle the entire process, from choosing nominees to interviewing the individual to filling out the form. In either case, it is best to have a central “clearing house” through which to submit nominations, and to serve as a single point of contact for Castle Connolly.

For healthcare consumers, Top Doctors has become a reliable way of finding the best practitioners in a given geographic area. The imprimateur lends credibility to a practice, and can alert prospective patients to the existence of a doctor they may not have known about. The annual list also provides another opportunity for a practice or health system to stand out from its competitors. So take a look at your organization’s high performing physicians and get nominating!

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.

Winning Patients’ Hearts with E-marketing

SPRYTE Helps Heart House Show its Love, and Expertise

Love is in the air this Valentine’s Day, but for one SPRYTE client, matters of the heart are a year-long occupation.

Heart House may not be anyone’s destination for a romantic dinner, but the South Jersey cardiology group is striving to be an important part of its patients’ lifestyle year-round. Its 31 doctors at seven locations are authorities in the latest techniques in cardiac care and interventional procedures, so when it comes to healing broken hearts, there’s no one you’d rather talk to.

In 2017, Heart House, seeking to build its brand, create loyalty among patients, and inspire referrals, enlisted SPRYTE to for e-marketing support. Our centerpiece is a bi-monthly newsletter, The Heartbeat.

Wooing Patients beyond Valentine’s Day

Knowing that consumers always like validation that they’ve made the right health care choice, SPRYTE developed The Heartbeat to be a friendly, quick, easy-to-read piece to reinforce that Heart House is a patient-focused practice concerned with delivering care as conveniently as possible. It also conveys that Heart House is on top of current trends in cardiac care, and its physicians are knowledgeable and highly skilled. Specifically, the newsletter:

  • Creates a positive brand impression of Heart House among patients and staff;
  • Keeps the practice name top-of-mind among patients and prospects;
  • Gives patients peace of mind that they are well cared for, and Heart House is committed to helping them thrive.

To do all this, each edition is divided into three sections: a lead story highlighting news and practice initiatives benefitting patients; a cardiac “factoid” with a compelling, easy-to-digest illustration highlighting current trends and epidemiology; and an “Ask the Doctor” feature, shining a light on a new or innovative device or technique in cardiac treatment. Each piece is short and to the point.

For recipients, the first two editions of The Heartbeat were love at first sight. Each enjoyed a 30 percent open rate, nearly twice the 17 percent open rate for physicians, according to a study by Constant Contact.

K.I.S.S. (Keep it Simple Stupid)

If you’d like to show your love to your patients via e-marketing, here are some things to keep in mind:

Make it about them, not you. Newsletters full of boastful material about that award your doctor or practice won will get relegated to the delete folder quickly. Include useful information or advice that patients can take to heart and improve their health, lifestyle, or patient experience.

Keep it simple. Short blocks of text go a long way with busy readers. Make each item a 1-minute read or less, punctuated by eye-catching graphics. The less scrolling readers have to do, the better. You are striving for a quick, robust brand impression.

Put your brand front and center. Include your logo and tag line or value proposition in the banner, and repeat it at the bottom. Be sure to include contact information and office locations.

Link to your social media. Every e-marketing platform allows you to include links to your social media feeds, so use them. And make sure your newsletter has highly visible Share buttons, so readers can spread the love.

As SPRYTE and Heart House have learned with The Heartbeat, putting tender loving care into your e-marketing effort can pay off by ensuring your patients only have eyes for you.

What’s Scarier than Being Unknown?

Your Facility Needs to Have a Voice!

Today is Halloween and a day for ghost stories and tales of things that go bump in the night. Scary stuff! But we are prepared to discuss something far darker and sinister. Politics? Well, scary for sure, but what we’re focused on today is anonymity. Eek!

It’s true. In healthcare there is nothing more haunting than being known for nothing or worse – not being known at all. That’s as woeful as a funeral dirge.

That brings us to external communication or, dare we say – marketing. For some, the word “marketing” elicits fear and/or visions of snake oil salesmen. We live in a world where it’s tough to escape. From the moment we wake until the moment we sleep we are bombarded with sponsored content. Truth is that some of us even see ads or hear that catchy jingle in our sleep, so that domain’s not even safe. In a perfect world we would not need marketing. In the days of old Transylvania, there may have been just one place to go for a transfusion (well, two if you “count” Dracula’s Castle). There was no need for marketing or differentiation. You had a “captive” patient base bereft of choices.

Today is altogether different. Choices abound. Hospitals, outpatient facilities, rehabilitation centers and urgent care centers can be found on almost every other block. There has never been a greater need to communicate through outlets such as earned media and your organization’s web site, blogs, podcasts, social media, etc.

Every Healthcare Organization is Unique

You may ask, “what do I say?” It’s a fair question. But it’s tough to imagine a facility without a story, one that only you can tell. It’s true that while there are similarities between facilities, there are also things that make you unique. Start there. There is an old marketing axiom that says “Promote the category you are No. 1 in. And if you don’t have one, create one.” You may have a piece of technology that no one else in the city/state/region/country has or you may have an affiliation that no one else can claim. Maybe it’s an independent survey that ranked you tops in patient satisfaction. In the advertising world that would be called your USP – or unique selling proposition. That thing only you can claim and the reason people will want your services.

Don’t Forget the Pictures!

Not to be lost in all of this is photography. While we can’t be sure the actual worth of a picture is 1,000 words, the appeal for visuals cannot be denied. But again, be unique. It’s blood-curdling to see a competitor using the same photo as you on a website, in an ad or social media posting. It’s enough to make you scream or want to die (or for you zombies, “die again”). It’s not cheap, but spend the money on a photo shoot. If planned and done right it will more than pay for itself.

Be True to Who You Are

Through all of this be sure to represent your brand. There’s that word again, about as well understood as the afterlife. It has taken on a life of its own and is often misconstrued. Branding is what people think or feel when they hear your name; it’s what your organization stands for and lives/breathes every day. It can be supported in your external communication efforts but never created there. Sound bites with the media, blog posts, podcasts, social media postings, news releases, etc. should all have messaging that is created with the brand in mind. A true test of this is how your message resonates with employees and stakeholders. If viewed positively by them, you have done your organization a service by supporting the brand.

Don’t be Just Another Clone

Again, dare to be different. Stand alone. Don’t try to be someone else. We have all seen movies about clones – they’re pretty creepy. Don’t be a clone. Be unique – set your organization apart.

Good Deeds Create Positive Images

Positive Stories Enhance Brand Reputations

An oft-quoted Buddhist koan states: If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

The same holds true for companies (as well as individuals) who perform acts of goodwill in their communities or provide other support for worthy endeavors as they seek to manage their brand reputations. Unless you can make people aware of the good deed you’re doing, how can you expect to get credit for it in the public eye?

As a general rule, people like to read or hear about people or organizations who are active in community outreach – or even a good deed that has an original aspect to it.  Even so, there must be some kind of compelling message in order to make your story connect with your intended audience.

Developing the Story

Any number of factors might be taken into consideration when trying to develop your story.

Who is your audience? What’s the purpose of the story – what are you trying to accomplish? What makes this story different from other, similar stories? Is there some greater meaning or issue to which you can tie your story? How will this impact your brand reputation? If your story involves some special event that you want media to cover, do the timing and location make it easy for media to attend? Another factor – one that rarely can be controlled – is what other news stories are taking place that same day.

By way of example – one of our clients, a leading national hospice and palliative care provider, sponsors an organization-wide “Gift of a Day” program that tries to bring to life each patient’s personal vision of what their own perfect day might be.

Each year, the company undertakes dozens, if not hundreds, of such Gift of a Days at its multiple locations across the country. Not all the gifts are media-worthy – in fact, many of the patients/recipients and their families prefer to keep the affair private. Many of the gifts are simple – a meal at a restaurant with family or friends, a rare trip to the beauty salon, a visit with a favored pet. Others are a little more involved – concert tickets for a favorite performer, a chance to ride in a vintage car or truck, a visit with a noted celebrity.

Telling the Story

Recently, social workers at one of the company’s 11 locations arranged for their patient to be taken for a last airplane ride over his beloved Kansas fields in a vintage World War II biplane. What made the gift especially poignant was the fact that the patient had served his country as a Navy pilot during World War II, and later during the Korean and Vietnam war eras. He was also a local man, born and bred in the community that he still called home. Thus, the event was both a “gift” to the patient, and a community outreach effort to engage citizens in honoring a patriotic local veteran who had given many years of service to his country.

The media advisory highlighted his patriotic service and also offered some stunning photos of the same biplane during previous flights. The flight itself was scheduled for early Saturday afternoon on Labor Day Weekend. This would give local TV news crews enough time to do filming, interviews and get back to the station to edit and prep for the late afternoon or evening news.

The patient’s daughter helped with the logistics, and also provided a touching on-camera interview describing what the gift meant to her father. It also helped that the patient himself was lucid, communicative, and even displayed a whimsical sense of humor as the cameras rolled during the time he was being strapped in for his upcoming flight.

Spreading the Word

Several local TV stations indicated interest in covering the story. But because it was a weekend, fewer camera crews were available than normal. One was all that was needed, though. The local Kansas City Fox affiliate, @fox4kc, came out to film the event, and interview the patient and his daughter, as well as a spokesperson for our hospice client. That night, the story aired on the 10:00 news featuring the interviews as well as footage of the vintage biplane performing in flight.

It was a colorful, heart-warming story – one that paid tribute to a local hero while giving credit to our client for arranging the happy event. In a matter of hours the story was picked up by the Fox national news desk and distributed to affiliates across the nation, including several of our client’s other service regions – thus reinforcing the company brand far beyond the one local market. In addition, several website storytellers adapted the story for their own affiliated networks, including CNN and Accu-Weather news amalgamators. All told, the story resulted in more than 43 million reader and viewer impressions ranging from Hawaii to the East Coast and even beyond.

It was a great experience – for everyone involved. What began as a good deed in a local market became a great national news story that warmed hearts and enhanced our client’s brand reputation throughout the country.

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.

When Employees Behave Badly

Avert Crisis with Preparedness

There’s an old saying that the only things that are absolutely certain are death and taxes.

Close behind is the reality that forms the basis for Murphy’s Law: sooner or later, despite our best efforts, something is going to go wrong, and we’ll have to answer for it, or at least explain it in a satisfactory manner.

Bad online reviews can dampen business, and should be dealt with promptly (as covered in a previous blog) to mitigate the ill effects. A significant error or lawsuit can become a major news story, depending on the circumstances.

Then there’s the human factor. Employees saying things they shouldn’t under the auspices of the organization, or worse, physicians or employees behaving badly. Whether it’s a misguided social media post, a verbal smack-down or physical altercation caught on camera, or a criminal act, you need to act quickly to minimize the impact on the organization and move toward mending public perception.

People Behaving Badly

Take the case of a national home care agency, with thousands of employees offering wonderful, compassionate care to their clients and making a difference in thousands of lives each day. Alas, like every industry, there are a few employees who shouldn’t be in their roles, who lack integrity, or don’t respect the trust they’ve been given.

When news broke that an employee – or in this case an independent contractor working as a caregiver – had stolen cash and jewelry from a client’s home, SPRYTE had to dust off the crisis communications playbook. The arrest, including perp walk, made local television news in the city where it occurred, and had the potential to spread beyond, as negative news often does. The franchise office which contracted the caregiver was facing blowback, and even other nearby franchises that had nothing to do with the incident were fielding calls of concern from clients and were asking for help.

Have a Plan, Then Work It

Every organization should have a crisis communications plan, with some basic steps. Of course, these will evolve or change with specific circumstances, but generally, you’ll want to designate a single spokesperson, develop talking points, and establish a means of providing timely, accurate information to those affected and other contingencies. Here are some specific steps to think about when the crisis involves the actions of an employee:

  • Assess the situation. See how it is being reported, and how widely. Is it a one-and-done story or does it have “legs” to carry it through more than a single news cycle? Are other outlets picking it up? Is the incident ranking high in online searches of the company name? In our sample case, we learned one television station ran the story on air and on its website, and that was the extent of it. It appeared near the top of a Google News search, but was several pages down on a general Google search.
  • Create talking points for various audiences. Limit this to the facts you know, and include mitigating information if there is any. SPRYTE learned that the victim of the theft didn’t even want to report her suspicions to the police because she liked the caregiver so much, and that it was the agency itself that encouraged her to contact the authorities. This kind of proactivity shows the company is ethical and trustworthy, even if the employee wasn’t. Also, we included the point that this was a 1099 contractor, not a regular employee, while acknowledging that to the public and clients, that distinction is meaningless.
  • Empower your managers. Since this was a local-level story, we briefed the franchise owner on how to answer questions that might come up, from either the media or clients’ families. Essentially, she was prepped to be the front-line representative for the company. We also shared separate talking points with neighboring offices.
  • Brainstorm all scenarios. Come up with a list of “what-ifs” addressing all eventualities so you or your front-line staff are ready for them. In this case, we created a table with the headings “If this happens” and “We’ll do this” and listed potential issues and how to react. Sometimes, the response was as simple as “refer the reporter to the corporate office, which will respond per the talking points.”

 

As Gene Kranz, the NASA flight director immortalized in Apollo 13, memorably said, “Let’s work the problem. Let’s not make things worse by guessing.” Take the time to gather all the relevant information, then monitor the situation and respond with facts, not conjecture. By being transparent, and addressing the concerns of your publics in a timely and accurate manner, you’ll go a long way toward minimizing the damage to your organization’s reputation.