The trusted source for
healthcare information and
The press can be home care’s best ally
As anyone who has ever followed a politician’s rise and fall knows, members of the media can be your best friends or your worst enemies. The latter description causes many people to fear the press, believing that what they say and do will be twisted and held against them. To say such situations have never happened would be a lie, but the vast majority of reporters want the same thing: a good, honest story. And that’s where you come in.
Despite what you may think, you and the media share a common goal — getting a message out to the public. Whether the topic is health regulations, Medicare spending, or health care financing, the reporter who covers the health care beat wants to know about the various aspects of the industry and how they affect the reader. You want the reader to be aware of the issues that affect home care, especially now as Medicare spending reductions continue to threaten the industry. If you can position yourself as a reliable source for the media, one who is willing to provide clear and fair information concerning health care and home care in particular, then both you and the reporter will achieve your goals.
Preparing to meet the press
Before trying to establish a relationship with the media, you’ll want to do some prep work. One of the first things you should do is to sit down with your staff and designate a spokesperson or primary contact. This person will be listed on all press releases and media alerts as the person the reporter should contact for more information. Your contact person will also be responsible for disseminating all your agency’s information to the media, via fax or e-mail. Make sure the person you choose is comfortable with the role and feels confident discussing health care and home care issues with the press.
Once that is established, you and your staff will want to determine what your goals are in establishing a media presence. (See list of goals and objectives, p. 62.) Do you want to get your agency’s name known locally? Do you want to expand your area’s health care coverage to include more issues involving home care? Are you hoping to position your agency and hospital as a reliable source for home care and general health care information?
Depending on your goals, you will want to determine your target audience — the people you want to reach. Consider carefully the kinds of information that relate to your goals and determine the best ways to distribute them. Some information is best presented in a news release, while other news can be summed up in a fact sheet or background piece. (See sample fact sheet, p. 65, and glossary of terms, p. 66.)
You will also want to develop a list of media contacts. Your local convention and visitors bureau or chamber of commerce are both excellent sources. Also, the Bacon’s media reference series is a good source. Those directories can be found in your local library and offer complete listings according to city and state for newspapers (daily, weekly, etc.), magazines, and television and radio stations. Create a list with the reporter’s name, title, beat or beats, and contact information (publication name, address, phone, fax, and e-mail). If possible, consider sending press updates and releases via e-mail.
While you certainly will want to include reporters who cover the health care beat, don’t overlook other areas such as business and life-style. Moreover, as some areas of the country have become popular retirement destinations, look for reporters who specialize in senior citizen issues.
Read your area newspapers
Look through your local newspapers and take note of the reporters you think do a good job of covering the health care and home health care beats, and add them to your list. Once you have settled upon the members of your resource list, it’s a good idea to call and confirm that you have the correct names. It’s not uncommon for reporters to change beats, so you will want to make sure that you update your list on a regular basis.
Why do some pieces of news make it onto the front page and others are buried deep? What is the intangible quality that catches the media’s attention and propels it into the forefront? Certainly, with some subjects it’s clear why they are on the front page, but with others it may be more difficult to determine why they’re mentioned at all. There is a method to the media madness, and while you might not be aware of it on a conscious level, straightforward criteria exist that establish a story’s newsworthiness.
The news value of a story will depend on the day. On slow news days, editors looking to fill column inches will be more likely to consider soft news — news that is not considered immediately important or timely to a large audience. Don’t expect to see a story on the opening of a branch office of your agency on a day when a major earthquake strikes or a political upheaval occurs. Soft news does not mean that it is not newsworthy, simply that it has a certain element of timelessness, meaning the story will be just as interesting in five days as it is now.
For an event to be considered news, it must meet certain criteria. The more elements your story pitch contains, the more likely it will be printed, according to News Writing and Reporting for Today’s Media, by Bruce D. Itule and Douglas A. Anderson:
Is it a recent development or something that is currently breaking, or is it referring to something that happened days or even weeks ago? Remember, timeliness doesn’t mean it has to be happening now — anniversaries of important events also count.
Is the story important to the local readers? Is it relevant to the community? If you can tie your town and its residents into the overall story, do it.
Has an issue been resolved? Is it important? Are two sides pitted against each other over the same subject?
• Eminence or prominence.
Are important people, such as a local politician or celebrity figure, involved? Does the story showcase something unique or novel? Stories about a one-of-a-kind or rare item are more interesting.
• Consequence or impact.
What effect will the story have on its readers? Is it something that will affect a large number of people? The more people affected, the greater the story’s impact.
• Human interest.
Does the story include unique or interesting elements that are likely to appeal to readers? Does your story idea provide valuable or interesting information to someone outside your agency? Is there a human-interest angle or does it provide readers with useful information? For a reporter to consider running a story, it must prove relevant to readers.
If you answered "No," to most of these questions, your story probably is not news. The last thing any reporter needs or wants to write is a glorified advertisement for your agency disguised as news. Articles that seem to shamelessly promote a particular agency or item are known as "advertorials" — a blend of advertising and editorial — and are paid for by the agency or organization. But a reporter is looking for a tangible piece of information, one that will inform and interest the reader, something that is timely and relevant.
Even if you answered "Yes," your story still may not be considered newsworthy. Remember, there are other factors that will determine whether your story will make it to the printed piece.
The department editor has a final say in whether a story goes to press on any given day and for that matter, if ever. Is there an availability of other news stories the editor considers more important? Is there a news hole that needs to be filled? Does the story match the media outlet’s philosophy; for instance, is it a business-oriented story for a business-oriented publication? Does the editor have a fair balance of soft and hard news? What about local, national, and international news?
Newspaper editors try to provide their readers with information on a broad number of subjects and give them a sense of what occurred in the world in the past 24 hours. For this reason, you might want to consider adding specialty publications — such as local magazines or newspapers geared to small business development, health care, etc. — to your media list.
Developing your message
When it comes to getting the media’s attention, content is king. A well-written article or story pitch may not guarantee you print coverage, but it will earn you respect by showing you understand and are able to provide the media with what they need.
When going to the press with a story idea, you need to remember three things:
1. There always is some amount of bias in the media.
That doesn’t mean that the press is against you; rather, that it primarily looks to the negative side of the story. Learn to recognize an outlet’s bias and pitch accordingly.
2. Provide sight and sound the media can use.
Give the press sound bites, visual images (such as pictures of the winners of your home care agency’s "Employee of the Year" award), anything that will work well in the chosen format and appeal to that particular audience. You want to find the "hook."
3. Controversy attracts attention.
Like it or not, controversial issues make for good copy.
Press releases are standard when it comes to garnering media attention. They can announce everything from a recent addition to your staff or the results of a congressional vote on home care spending.
While it’s important to establish a presence for your agency as an intelligent, competent media source, avoid overdoing it. If you send out releases trumpeting everything that happens at your agency, people will soon learn to tune you out — a definite problem when you really do have news.
You can vastly increase the effectiveness of your release and the chances of it being used by following a few basic rules:
• Answer six questions — Who? What? Where? When? Why? and How? — in the first, or lead, paragraph. It lets the recipient quickly scan the story for important information, especially critical to outlets that only have space for a brief item summary.
• Make the lead catchy and follow through with "sound bites" — brief striking statements — scattered throughout the body of the text.
• Make sure the release is typed and double-spaced and lists contact information at the top. This includes your agency name, address, phone number, and contact person. (See sample release, p. 63.)
• Include a release date at the top. This tells the media what day they can go public with the information. Unless otherwise noted, it will be assumed the piece is "For Immediate Release."
• Stick to the facts and if possible, keep your press release to a single page. This is not the place for flowery prose and abundant clichés.
• Be concise. To exploit an overused phrase: Don’t use a 50-cent word when a 10-cent one will do. Say what you have to say and stop.
• Be clear. Cumbersome phrases and flashy descriptions can detract from your message.
• Conclude your release using either of these symbols, ### or —30—, centered at the bottom of the page. They indicate that the reader has reached the end.
• Target your news release to the proper department. For example, announcing a new director is business-related news, not health care, even though you run a home health care agency.
• Follow up with a phone call or short note, accompanied by a hard copy of the release.
Once you’ve determined that your idea has merit, the next question is how to get the media interested. Assuming this is your first foray into pitching a story idea, here are some general guidelines:
• Develop a rapport with several reporters. You may want to consider offering your services as a source on home health-related issues. For example, when action in Congress affects home care, position yourself as a home care expert who can knowledgeably discuss how the issue will impact the industry and the community and how your agency will handle it. In doing so, you will be giving them what they want, information, in exchange for something you want, publicity.
If you feel confident enough, offer to write a regular home health care column in your local paper. Perhaps you could offer advice on selecting a home care agency that suits a patient’s needs or simply answer readers’ questions about home health care. Either way, you will be setting yourself up as an authority and someone to whom the media may turn for home health care-related information and quotes.
• Act; don’t react. In the event the industry gets bad press, go to the media before they come to you. That way you have a chance to plan your strategy and build the public’s confidence in you, your agency, and the industry, instead of appearing defensive, or worse, unprepared.
• If it isn’t news, don’t pitch the story. That’s not to say you shouldn’t send out regular press releases keeping the media apprised of your home care agency’s doings; just don’t expect every one to make it into the morning edition.
Which branch of the media you approach will depend on your story angle. Each media outlet handles the news with its own distinct approach, so it’s best to research the media outlet before pitching a story; you can tailor your pitch or story idea to match the medium.
Daily newspapers have the advantage of dividing news into easily identifiable sections — sports, metro, business — and thus people can easily find the material that interests them. Of the print media, daily papers tend to offer a more in-depth look at a far-reaching issue than weekly papers. Trying to get a story included in a special health care supplement or insert is a good way to get your feet wet.
While daily papers tend to have more readers, weekly papers are the most likely to provide in-depth coverage about local and community events and issues.
Weekly newspapers are also more willing to use photos, and because they generally have smaller staffs, they tend to be more receptive to story pitches.
Magazines will probably prove to be your hardest sell. Most magazines today have editorial staff but hire freelance writers for their feature stories. For this reason, if you’re approaching a magazine, consider offering a small news item.
A local city magazine, for example, might be interested in the fact that you have expanded your agency’s office or that you have begun offering a greater variety of services.
Getting the media to pick up a story isn’t difficult; you just need to learn a few basics. Armed with the right information and a little bit of practice, you’ll find that working with the media can prove to be a mutually rewarding experience.