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To Get More Media Coverage, Think More Like the Media

Gienna Shaw, for HealthLeaders Media, March 25, 2009

Want to know what stories reporters will be calling you about next—before the phone rings? Want to send a pitch that reporters will actually read and respond to? Want to get the experts at your hospital out in front of the press when a national health story breaks? All you have to do is think like a journalist.

Or, more to the point, read like one.

Where do reporters get their ideas? Why, from other reporters, of course. That's not to say that reporters just recycle the same old stories—that's why they loathe bulk e-mail press releases. The good ones, anyway, want to find a fresh angle and make the story their own. And that's where you come in. Help them write a story that stands out from the rest and they will return your phone calls and e-mails. Start by trolling the same places that reporters do for story ideas.

National publications: The big newspapers, magazines, and online outlets have the resources to really dig into stories. They're more likely to have a dedicated staff of healthcare reporters. Reporters at smaller outlets will often tweak national stories for their own audiences.

What you can do: Help a reporter supply the local or regional angle to a national story.

Niche publications: Business publications or those that focus on one topic (such as healthcare leadership) often identify trends well in advance of the mainstream media. And reporters love trends.

What you can do: Help a reporter identify an emerging issue before everyone else does.

Medical journals: Reporters love a good study—especially if they can tell their audience that a little red wine and a daily dose of dark chocolate are good for you. But many journal articles are dense and easy to misinterpret or oversimplify—and subscriptions to all those journals are expensive.

What you can do: Help reporters explain research to their audience in plain—and accurate—language.

Entertainment shows: OK, it feels a little creepy, but if a celebrity is diagnosed with a disease or dies unexpectedly from an accident or other causes, the media is going to be all over that.

What you can do: Help reporters find experts (your physicians, of course) to interview for those stories. Warning: Tact and timing are important here. Don't do this.

Trade publications and associations: There are several journalism groups out there that regularly publish issue briefs, tips, and story ideas specifically for healthcare reporters. The Association of Health Care Journalists, for example, recently published an article criticizing the methodology of hospital quality ratings. That's the kind of story reporters will latch onto.

What you can do: Help them understand that there are many different sides to such complicated issues and explain how your organization is working to improve quality.

Consumer healthcare publications: Consumer Reports, for example, publishes a supplement called "On Health." The most recent cover story was titled "Smarter hip and knee repair" and has a jolting subhead: "New artificial joints can last longer—but are also oversold." Not exactly the kind of news your ortho service line director wants to hear.

What you can do: Help reporters understand complex medical procedures and educate their audience about when it's time to see a doctor.

Go-to sources to help you become a go-to source
Stay ahead of the news and keep track of what reporters are writing and reading about with these sources (some require a registration or subscription):

The Association of Health Care Journalists publishes examples of healthcare coverage from around the U.S., story ideas for reporters, and briefs on issues such as covering health reform and Obama's proposed budget, making sense of hospital quality reports, and information about what quality measures can be found online.

Consumer Reports On Health: Publishes consumer-oriented stories on hot topics such as hip and knee repair, recent medical breakthroughs, and expert advice on health.

Poyntner Online: Lists ideas for stories that reporters can "localize and enterprise." Not healthcare specific, but search for the term health to find stories about slow ambulance response times and resources for covering stem cell research policies, for example.

Journalistics blog: Want to know what reporters really think of you? If you can stand a little snark, you'll get some good tips about how to work well with reporters—or, more importantly, what drives them crazy. Recent posts include discussions of CAN-SPAM compliant PR pitches and, coincidentally, a story about where reporters get story ideas.

Where do you think I got the idea for this column?


Gienna Shaw is an editor with HealthLeaders magazine. She can be reached at gshaw@healthleadersmedia.com.

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