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!

 

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.