By Holly Sutton on 7 September 2017
Lessons for healthcare PR from journalists who’ve ‘crossed the line’
Lessons for healthcare PR: a panel of top UK healthcare journalists, who’ve recently crossed the line into PR, reveal all and share their insights for improving media relations.
Health news desks are thinning these days as publishing cuts drive experienced correspondents to cross the line into working for the organisations they previously reported on.
Depleting newspaper budgets and increasingly sophisticated content and social media marketing from both publishers and influencers have blurred what was once a ‘line’ into more of a spectrum of independence within reporting. So, for the PRCA Health Group’s most recent event, we brought together the PR industry’s most recent and prominent media recruits to reflect on this, with a view to what others can learn from their experiences.
We have dissected their insights into a series of top tips healthcare organisations can use to improve their media engagement.
1. Healthcare demands a deep niche
Two out of three of the panelists have kept their healthcare niche throughout their career. Rebecca Smith moved from health correspondent at the Manchester Evening News through to the Evening Standard, before the Telegraph and then into NICE’s media team. For her, it is a deep understanding of the sector that defines her as much as previous experience as a reporter.
Understanding reporters as fanatics within their beat helps you to capture their interest. To be attractive, briefings need to be in-depth and run by experts in their fields. Information that will expand journalists’ genuine knowledge, not just this week’s headlines, can be an effective engagement technique. For example, we established quarterly in-depth behind the scenes briefings for Dr Foster that attracted key members of the BBC health desk each time.
2. Journalists are selfish
Crossing the line means becoming more of a team player. Ex-BBC correspondent Adam Brimelow described his instinct as a journalist was to “get up there and punch lights out” compared to his new role as Head of News at NHS Providers where he must take a “more subtle approach”. All the panel agreed crossing the line means moving from “a very selfish way of working” into appreciating the constraints of the organisation that you’re working for and taking a more team-focused approach.
Effective PRs understand how to appeal to the competitive nature of media operators. For example, never pitch to more than one journalist at the same outlet at the same time. Reporters can be as competitive with their colleagues for stories as they are with their peers on other titles.
3. Process is never your top line
Smith shook up the NICE press office when she joined. Refusing to put out press releases that said: “this is our guidance”, she drilled the team into focusing on “How is this changing people’s lives?” Detailing “how many people will get this drug” and “how care for people with motor neurone disease is changing because of new guidelines.”
The panel agreed that all content used to engage their types of media needs to think about the patient and the end user, not the product.
4. Pressure cuts both ways
Everyone on the panel agreed that a change in pace, from cut-throat fast to what they described as ‘slow’, was one of the most difficult things transitions in crossing the line.
Each of them brought a fresh understanding to their teams of the strict time pressures journalists have to deal with and how to better manage these.
Finding favour with a reporter can be as simple as keeping them apprised of when the information they’ve requested is likely to appear and providing holding statements in the meantime. “‘Knowing I wasn’t forgotten kept me sane as deadlines approach,” explained Brimelow. “It was much better for me to know if I wasn’t going to get an answer so I could advise the programme editors what I’d be able to deliver.
An honest chat about the barriers you as a PR face in getting the information helps both sides to establish what will be needed to ensure the story gets a good run.
5. Genuine connections are the most valuable tool in the box
Pitching to your former peers is always going to be easier than doing it cold, from the other side of the fence. Smith recognised that the relationships she built with her former colleagues and peers as a journalist serve her well now.
Brimelow stressed the importance of longstanding personal relationships with journalists and described how, as a former reporter, he is particularly well-equipped to do the job of “working hard at cultivating our contacts to make sure that our voice is heard above the din.”
6. Anticipate how the story will play out
Using her insight as a journalist Smith says to her former peers: “I know you’re going to take that angle, but that’s not what this is all about”, shaping the story in a powerful and convincing way that better supports the broader narrative of her organisation.
7. Case studies make all the difference
The journalistic talent of getting the most personal story out of people in a short length of time, that “emotion and power” Smith said is incredibly useful in PR. She described how the lines are increasingly becoming blurred and making NICE like a newsroom in its ability to turn out compelling, timely content is improving the way it engages audiences.
Barrow agreed that “What gets you in the news is capturing the humanity of your story. Without that, your press release will never stand out.
It is the case study, Ex Times correspondent Martin Barrow said, that “is the difference between a filler on page 33 or a spread on page 3.”
Brimelow reflected that in his time as a journalist one of the most compelling pitches was from the Alzheimer’s Society, who knew how to “make a story sing with a brilliant case study.”
8. The pitch beyond your pitch
Brimelow said that when he was a journalist the “best PR people presented me with a pitch that was very well made for me to present to my editors – bang on with all the information I needed to secure the story and get the impact that I was looking for.”
Understand the journalist must make a pitch of your content to their editor. So, arm them to the teeth with everything to make your case as compelling as possible. This means developing everything from case studies, as described above, to video to embed, quality high resolution images, audio files and online tools and widgets to personalise the story. Such is the importance of this tailored multimedia content, that Barrow said the more recently trained journalists who can create it will be increasingly in-demand by the PR industry, over and above the more traditional ‘trophy hires’ such as himself.
9. Customise content for every channel
All the panel admitted to wanting to work directly from good, tailored news releases.
Despite headline-grabbing announcements from PRs at industry conferences that the news release is dead, every member of the panel referred to them repeatedly. Yes, the panel agreed of the importance of summarising your press release in your email in just a few words, then bullets. But journalists still want a written press release that will help them sell it to their editor, and flesh out the story.
10. Cut the jargon and make it clear
You know that litter that gets into your release when it’s been signed off by five different people in your organisation? It turns journalists off. They hate it.
“All the sense has been taken out of it,” Smith describes. People quoted for posterity is an irritant and a turn off.
Good PRs take these battles to the top and get them sorted for the good of the organisation.
“I get over 300 emails a day,” described Smith “and 65,000 when I returned from nine-months maternity leave. Then I might get a dozen follow-up calls. I know journalists who screen their calls – everyone finds their own way of managing it. That’s why you need to get to the crux of the story quickly and clearly.”