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!

 

Public Affairs and PR: Perfect Together

Government Relations and Public Relations a Team Effort

As our hometown Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles recently proved (yeah, we’re still celebrating!) to be successful, a football team needs a great offense. That means a dependable line as well as a talented backfield. And while it’s the backs that tend to get most of the glory, they can’t do it on their own.

The linemen are responsible for the nitty-gritty. They do their job in the trenches – mostly out of sight from the casual observer, blocking would-be tacklers, protecting the quarterback, opening lanes for the speedy running backs and talented receivers.

Running Backs and Linemen

A successful public affairs campaign often works much the same way. The Public Relations pros are like the running backs – running with the broader story, alerting the public to the importance of the public policy being promoted, showcasing activities and events in ways that seek to create wider public awareness and broader public support.

Their Government Relations teammates, meanwhile, do the nitty-gritty – working within the power structure, targeting the appropriate legislators, governors, staff members or other public officials to make sure the public policy initiative is moving in the right direction, fending off the opposition, opening lanes for negotiation and agreement.

When they work together in a well-coordinated team effort, magnificent things can happen.

Case in Point

As part of a recent webinar sponsored by the New England Society of Healthcare Communications (NESHCO), presenters from Care New England discussed their efforts to promote statewide legislation in Rhode Island mandating fertility preservation coverage for women undergoing cancer treatments (such as sterilizing surgery, chemotherapy or radiation) that could render them infertile.

Early on, Government Relations and Public Relations team members understood the need to work collaboratively. This was important, because, as noted, their focus can sometimes be at cross purposes.

The process began with internal meetings with clinicians, cancer specialists, lawyers, and Government Relations and Public Relations team members. The purpose: to ensure everyone on the planning team understood the issues involved so they could set a strategic direction for moving forward.

Working Inside / Outside

From there, Government Relations worked with their lobbyists and legislative staff to draft proposed legislation to provide protection to women undergoing cancer treatments. At the same time, the team worked on identifying and educating potential sponsors in both the House and Senate, and to garner support from the leadership of both chambers.

In the months ahead, the Government Relations team worked to identify and evaluate potential witnesses (doctors and patients) to appear at legislative committee hearings as well as be available for supporting media opportunities. The team also helped draft testimony and kept in close communication with legislators to alleviate any concerns that might arise as a result of the hearings and provide regular updates to key internal stakeholders.

Going Public

Meanwhile, PR worked to get the message out to the general public, in order to start building popular support for measures designed to protect the health and lives of women facing such daunting challenges. Various allies, including the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM), assisted and provided an official statement in support of the legislation that was included in a news release. That kind of support helped spread the love by encouraging others to raise their voices as well. News stories subsequently appeared in key publications including The Providence Business Journal, Providence Business News, HealthLeaders Media, US News and Beckers Hospital Review. In addition, clinicians from Women & Infants Hospital of Rhode Island provided a supporting op-ed that appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Happy Ending

On July 5, 2017, Rhode Island became the first state in the nation to require insurance coverage of fertility preservation prior to radiation or chemotherapy treatment that could result in infertility.

At SPRYTE, members of our team have been involved in similar efforts over the years, including an effort in Pennsylvania to eliminate the use of certain chemicals in children’s products. The experience was very similar – working a two-pronged approach, one aimed at legislators and regulatory officials, the other focusing on building awareness in the media and among the public about the chemicals in question.

Our experience mirrored what took place in Rhode Island: working with legislative staff and sponsors, identifying and vetting expert witnesses, and updates about new scientific studies supporting the claims that children were at risk. Our story ended somewhat differently; after several legislative hearings, industry representatives agreed to stop using the chemicals in childrens’ products.

Nevertheless, the lessons remain the same. Government Relations and Public Relations professionals each bring different, but often complementary, skill sets to the table. To work together, they need to plan together, establish mutual goals, and map out a clear strategy that allows each team to do what they do best without getting in each other’s way.

From a public policy standpoint, the results can be game-changing.

Published February 20, 2018 by Spryte Communications in Uncategorized

Providers Need to Understand Patients’ Perspectives

Juneteenth – America’s Other Independence Day

Americans love their Fourth of July holiday. After all, it’s America’s birthday – the day we traditionally set aside to celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the establishment of a free nation where “all men are created equal.”

But for many, those hallowed words proved hollow. Hundreds of thousands of slaves throughout the young United States – especially in the South – would need to wait almost another century before their rights to equality were officially recognized.

Another View of History

On July 5, 1852, famed African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, himself a former slave, delivered an impassioned speech spelling out the irony inherent in the July 4th celebration:

“This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn,” Douglass said. “What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim…”

It would take another 13 years, hundreds of thousands of lives, and a Civil War that tore apart the fabric of the American nation before four million African-American slaves would get their own taste of freedom.

Juneteenth – Freedom Reborn

On June 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger, military commander of the defeated Confederate state of Texas, read aloud General Order No. 3, telling the populace of Galveston that: “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation of the United States, all slaves are free.”

Spontaneous celebrations among the newly freed African American population quickly erupted across the South as Juneteenth was born. African-American communities across the U.S. soon adopted Juneteenth as their own holiday, using it as an occasion for celebrating freedom with public events, picnics and church gatherings.

Lesson: Understanding Leads to Compassion

Once we understand the history of Juneteenth and how it came into being, it’s easier to appreciate why many African Americans consider Juneteenth to be a day to celebrate not only the vision of freedom President Lincoln described in his 1863 Emancipation Proclamation but also the original promise of the Declaration of Independence.

Since our childhood, we’ve been told that America is a melting pot, comprised of people from all over the world, representing a multitude of religious backgrounds, races, cultures, customs, languages and lifestyles.

Healthcare providers face the everyday challenge of understanding how these differentiating factors may affect individuals’ or families’ attitudes toward illness, pain, coping and death. It is important to appreciate why these attitudes are held, because they can significantly influence their willingness to explore various treatment options. Hospice, in particular, can be an especially touchy discussion topic.

For example, according to statistics, African-Americans comprise approximately 12% of the U.S. population, but they make up only 7.6% of hospice patients. Ironically, African-Americans have a disproportionately higher rate of cancer and heart disease, which are among the top hospice diagnoses.

Researchers point out several reasons for this incongruity. As a rule, African-American families tend to be less trustful of the American healthcare system. In addition, because medical decisions tend to be made within the family, there may be a reluctance to consult with a new, unknown healthcare professional or someone outside the home. Finally, statistically speaking, African Americans tend to be especially reluctant to cease life-prolonging procedures such as tube feeding, organ donation, and palliative care in the hospice setting – because extending life is generally seen as something to be preferred.

Honoring Differences

Healthcare communicators need to recognize that their messages may be perceived very differently by diverse audiences and adjust accordingly.

As the U.S. healthcare system continues to evolve to one that is more population health-oriented and patient-centered, there is a growing need for healthcare providers to educate patients, families and the general public about what they can do to stay healthier, as well as the nature of specific healthcare challenges and treatment options.

Understanding their emotions, how they think, and the reasons behind these different perspectives is vital to helping patients and families make treatment decisions that are most appropriate for their individual situations.

It’s not unlike coming to appreciate the Juneteenth holiday. The better we understand the history and background of our patients, the better we can understand and honor the views and emotions that influence their decisions and actions.

Opioid Crisis Requires a Community Effort

Combining Strengths to Confront a Potent Problem

One of the most prominent public affairs topics in recent months has been “The Opioid Crisis” or “The Opioid Epidemic.” Hardly a day goes by without a major news story offering up frightening new statistics about the rising number of opioid abusers, opioid-related arrests or opioid-related deaths.

Clearly, it’s a national healthcare crisis. But in Massachusetts, the problem is particularly acute. Recently, the New York Times noted that across the country, someone dies of an opioid overdose every 24 minutes, while in Massachusetts, the rate is five people a day. According to a posting on mass.gov, the official state website:

“The opioid-related death rate in Massachusetts has surpassed the national average, with an especially sharp rise in the last two years.

 “In one way or another — through deaths, nonfatal overdoses, or disruptions to jobs, marriages, families, and neighborhoods — every community in Massachusetts has been impacted by this growing crisis.”

Recently, the New England Society of Healthcare Communications (NESHCO), of which SPRYTE is a member, sponsored a webinar exploring how one community hospital was addressing the crisis. Christopher Smalley, Director of Marketing & Communications, and Sarah Cloud, LICSW, Director of Social Work, for Beth Israel Deaconess-Plymouth in Plymouth, MA, talked about how officials at their hospital worked with local government and community leaders to lead a comprehensive plan of outreach, education, intervention and treatment to address the growing epidemic.

Community Problem/Collaborative Solutions

The first step was to establish a consensus that the Opioid Crisis was more than just a drug-related problem that affected opioid abusers; it was a public health and safety issue affecting families, coworkers, students and others throughout the community. It’s a complicated public affairs/public health issue and there are no easy answers.

The catalyst was a “60 Minutes” style news video about the opioid crisis in Plymouth produced by journalism students from Plymouth North High School, which is just across the street from Beth Israel. The video showed individuals who admitted getting drugs from hospitals by stealing doctors’ notepads and forging their signatures.

The video was a wake-up call. In previous years Beth Israel had helped sponsor a community health program called “Healthy Plymouth” that focused on common concerns such as healthy eating and making healthy lifestyle choices. But opioids were a whole different ballgame. It was a problem that challenged the entire community- businesspeople, professionals and citizens of all categories.

Beth Israel led the effort by reaching out to police and community leaders. Working together, hospital and community leaders obtained a $3.7 million state grant to develop a substance abuse awareness and treatment program. Project Outreach is a collaboration of public safety agencies and healthcare providers designed to respond to the growing number of opioid overdoses by conducting follow-up visits within 12-24 hours after an overdose.

 Project Outreach

The two main aspects of the program are overdose follow-up and community outreach.

Overdose Follow-up: After an overdose occurs in a participating community the Project Outreach team comes together to decide the best course of action for the individual. If in-person follow-up is advised, a healthcare worker and police officer goes to the home of the overdose victim. The healthcare worker discusses treatment options with the individual and, if they are willing, helps get them into a treatment program.

Community Outreach: Twice a month the Project Outreach team hosts a drop-in center. At these centers, health care providers help with treatment options, provide training and distribute Narcan at no cost. (Narcan, also known as Naloxone, is often administered in emergency situations to reverse opiate overdose). The drop-in centers are open for anyone looking for information about treatment, including family members and friends. This setting provides a unique opportunity to have the undivided attention of healthcare workers who specialize in treating substance use disorders. They can also answer questions about addiction, discuss treatment options, assist on issues with paying for treatment, and help get individuals into treatment programs.

Making an Impact

During 2016, after the initiation of the program, Project Outreach recorded a total of 2,921 patients provided with behavioral health intervention in the Beth Israel Emergency Department. In addition, of 200 non-fatal overdoses in the Town of Plymouth, 91 declined services in the emergency department and received follow-up care in the community. Another 65 were located and engaged in assessment and 58 were connected to a treatment program.

During the same time, 10 drop-in centers were created within the community, each with the ability to connect patients to treatment without overdosing or having to go to the emergency department. The centers also offer Naloxone training and kits as well as referrals to support services.

A variety of awareness campaigns were also part of the prescription. Project Outreach helped provide information to the surrounding public about Naloxone, Pain Management and Wellness, as well as a MedSafe Drop Box kiosk where people can bring in personal prescriptions that are no longer needed or wanted.

Earned Media

All of this was accomplished primarily through earned media and word of mouth. The only advertising expenditure involved published rack cards to provide information about how to recognize an overdose and other healthcare issues. Stories about the program have appeared throughout the state in local and regional newspapers as well as on radio and TV.

Not only did this help minimize costs for the hospital – in the long run, it enhanced the level of community cooperation that was so important to the program’s overall success. So far, Project Outreach has expanded throughout Plymouth County to 27 towns and cities, as well as five additional hospitals. Project leaders have created a web-based database to collect real time data. They are also providing guidance to healthcare facilities and police departments around the nation as more and more localities seek answers to this virulent problem.