Expand the reach of your marketing with public relations

Media coverage enhances image

[Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part series that looks at effective media relations. This month, we look at proven strategies that result in media coverage of hospice events, services, and announcements. Next month, tips and strategies for handling media relations during a crisis are described.]

Are you tired of reading about other hospices or health care providers in your local paper or seeing their special events featured on television news? Their events, their expert speakers, and their services are probably not bigger and better than yours, but they are handling media relations the right way.

"The most common mistake people make in media relations is not understanding the difference between public relations, which includes media relations, and advertising," says Merrily Orsini, MSSW, managing director of Corecubed, an integrated marketing, design, and public relations company based in Louisville, KY. They can both be used to promote a product, service, or event, but advertising space is purchased while public relations space is obtained by offering a newsworthy item to the media to generate coverage, she explains. This "free" publicity is an effective tool to enhance your overall marketing efforts, she adds.

Although your event or announcement may be significant to your employees, board members, and patients, the fact that it is planned may not appear newsworthy to media, points out Orsini. In these cases, look for ways to demonstrate newsworthiness, she suggests. Prominent community leaders who are personally connected to your hospice through volunteer work or have experience with your hospice providing care to a family member can serve as masters of ceremonies, hosts, or introductory speakers, she says. The public standing of the person can make the event newsworthy, she adds.

Other tips to enhance the likelihood that the media will cover your event include:

• Show impact of hospice

"Use statistics to demonstrate why hospice is important," says Orsini. "If your message is to encourage people to consider hospice earlier in the trajectory of their disease, support the message with statistics that show that patients and families benefit from the extra time on hospice," she suggests.

• Relate hospice to current trends

"The cost of health care is a topic that everyone discusses today," says Orsini. "There are studies that compare costs of providing health care at the end-of-life in hospitals versus hospice so use this information to educate reporters about the newsworthiness of hospice care."

• Demonstrate expertise

If your event has a speaker who is a recognized expert on a topic, promote the expertise, recommends Orsini. Provide information about the speaker that demonstrates his or her expertise, and offer reporters a chance for an interview prior to or after the event. "This is especially important if your speaker is a physician or researcher from outside your hospice who talks about cutting-edge practices," she adds.

• Describe visual opportunities

Both television and newspaper editors are more likely to cover an event that provides exciting visuals to accompany the story, says Orsini. "Butterfly releases are wonderful visuals and when you pair that with a creative name, such as "Monarchs to Heaven," you will catch someone's attention," she says. Open houses also can provide good visuals if you've recently renovated or opened a new facility, she says.

When you "pitch" or present your story to the media, it is not enough to say, "We're wonderful," says Stephanie Smith, director of communications at Hosparus in Louisville, KY. "You have to present something that is interesting, unique, or of great interest to the community," she explains.

Three years ago Smith's organization underwent a name change. The previous name was The Alliance of Community Hospices and Palliative Care Services. "Research showed us that people perceived all hospices to be the same and the idea of hospice scared them," says Smith. The organization's name change to Hosparus was accompanied by paid advertising with print ads, billboards, and television, but public relations efforts also resulted in good coverage by news staffs as well, she says. "We had a very clear message that explained how we help people gain control over their care at the end of life," she says.

Although not all events are as significant as an organization's name change, even smaller stories will be covered if presented correctly. "One of our stories that received very good coverage was a grief group for men," says Smith. Because men don't share stories of grief as often as women, the health editor of a local paper liked the idea of presenting a different perspective on grief. "I was able to easily point out why this story was different and how it could appeal to the local audience," she adds.

How you make the pitch is as important as what you pitch, points out Smith. "A few years ago I surveyed editors and reporters to find out how they wanted me to contact them and what information they wanted to receive," she says. "I found out that I was sending too much information in my first contact." Most editors and reporters prefer e-mail messages but they don't want attachments, they want the key information in the body of the e-mail, she says. (See page 126 for more tips on pitching a story.)

Be sure your press release contains the essential information such as day, time, and location of an event along with other information such as potential visuals or an opportunity to interview experts or families one-on-one, suggests Orsini. "If you have a photograph of a previous event, such as a balloon or butterfly release, include that with the press release as an example of what they'll be able to use."

After sending your press release, call the editor or reporter a few days later to make sure the press release was received and ask if there is any other information you can provide, suggests Orsini. If someone indicates an interest in attending the event, or following up on the story idea, offer to help meet the deadline by providing the information, setting up interviews, or providing visuals. "If they don't indicate any interest in the idea, don't push," she says.

Another way to generate interest in your story ideas or special events is to make sure you use a variety of media to publicize them, says Orsini. "Use on-line media, such as Facebook, to promote events to generate interest throughout the general community and to show reporters that the event will be well-attended," she says. "Research on-line event directories for your area and make sure your event shows up in them so reporters researching activities in the community will see them."

The most difficult part of handling public relations is the expectation of other people in your organization, admits Smith. "People get very excited about their activities and believe that if I send a press release, they will get media coverage," she says. "I try to be honest and explain that I will send the press release but the award or presentation may not be considered newsworthy," she says. "I try to set realistic expectations for what the press release might achieve."

Even if you receive positive feedback and reporters plan to attend your event, be aware that things change, says Orsini. "Expect to be bumped from the reporter's schedule by a more newsworthy event and have a backup plan," she says. Have your own photographer or videographer on site to get visuals you can send to the media following the event. Along with the visuals, send statistics on how many people attended, how much money was raised, or how many butterflies were released, she says. "A backup plan gives you a second chance to get coverage."

Sources/Resources

For more information about effective public relations, contact:

• Merrily Orsini, MSSW, Managing Director, Corecubed, P.O. Box 6046, Louisville KY 40206-0046. Tel: (800) 370-6580, ext. 1 or (502) 425-9770; e-mail: merrily.orsini@corecubed.com.

• Stephanie Smith, Director of Communications, Hosparus, 3532 Ephraim McDowell Dr., Louisville KY 40205. Tel: (502) 719-8925; e-mail: ssmith@hosparus.org.