Healthcare Public Relations: A guide to building a healthcare newsroom
Why Storytelling is the Key to Healthcare PR
Creating meaningful change in healthcare is difficult. It is an industry which moves slowly and cautiously. Similarly, creating positive change in the public relations infrastructure within health systems and hospitals can be just as challenging. In this article, we outline steps your team can take to build a successful healthcare PR newsroom.
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When it comes to Healthcare public relations, storytelling is key. News in healthcare– a major development in a vaccine, for example– is difficult to communicate to the general public. PR practitioners face pressure to abide by regulatory practices. In the United States staying HIPPA compliant is a significant challenge for healthcare PR professionals. As a result, communicators are obliged to use highly technical medical language in press releases, often at the expense of broader comprehension.
It does not help that healthcare is one of the most politicized and polarizing topics in our society. PR pros must think about the social, religious, and political ramifications of their content; ensuring they promote truth and integrity while aligning with the values of their organization and their diverse audiences.
As a result, the work of healthcare communicators is incredibly restrictive. Their content needs to go through a multi-step approval process and is often loaded with medical jargon. The size of the audience that can truly comprehend this content and its impact on regular people shrinks, making the communicator's work even more challenging. Ultimately the return on such efforts is hard to justify.
Yet there are viable solutions to these problems that healthcare communicators would be well advised to consider.
Reasoned, practical healthcare information – directly from the experts
Healthcare is a field where a single question can have a thousand different answers. People first seek answers to health concerns through a simple Google Search such as “Why does my chest hurt?” Yet the information isn’t always backed by the scientific rigor we’ve come to expect in healthcare. In the age of social media and blogging, where anyone and everyone can pose as an expert, and misinformation is rife, casual Googling of health issues can lead to frustrating and often dangerous consequences. The popular healthcare website WebMD, for example, has become a meme for providing poor healthcare advice.
There is an opportunity for Healthcare communicators to fill this vacuum by leveraging internal expertise to provide reasoned, practical healthcare advice for individuals looking for it.
Cook Children’s Hospital successfully does this through its ‘Checkup Newsroom.’ By providing advice on topics such as ‘Let's Learn About ... Heart Murmurs,’ Cook Children’s PR team is able to successfully combat misinformation in healthcare while positioning themselves as experts in pediatric medicine.
Another effective way of public communication is by tying this form of content to stories in the news cycle. In early 2020, when COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, OhioHealth published a dedicated page ‘COVID-19: Continuing Coverage’. The page is a great resource for readers looking for comprehensive information about the pandemic and its effects on multiple aspects of our lives.
Embrace the power of storytelling
Perhaps the most effective form of content that PR professionals can use to supplement their press releases is storytelling.
A sign of our times is that important information is often diluted within a sea of non-stories dressed up as breaking news. People tend to view overly optimistic articles that claim some major breakthroughs in cancer research as 'too good to be true.' So when a real breakthrough in medicine is achieved, let’s say a new revolutionary vaccine, people are often skeptical.
By humanizing stories and revealing the real-life impact of treatments on ordinary people, healthcare PR professionals can effectively show the impact of their organization’s work.
Shepherd Center is an Atlanta based hospital that uses storytelling to communicate the treatments of patients rehabilitating from spinal cord and brain trauma.
Their story 'Families From Across the Nation Travel to Shepherd Center for Specialized Care' is a prime example of how storytelling can become a powerful way to talk about your brand without coming across as inauthentic or sales-y. By focusing on the experiences of the people they work with, Shepherd effectively signals their brand mission and values, while centering themselves as the foremost experts on spinal and brain trauma.
Leverage your internal resources
The biggest asset a healthcare organization has is its own staff. One way PR professionals can build a newsroom that resonates in the healthcare community is by tapping into the goldmine that exists within their organization.
There are two key reasons this mindset can benefit your newsroom and your organization:
- As stated above, seeking the expertise of physicians is a great way of providing further reach for their knowledge. While a conference may provide them with an audience of a thousand, a well-written piece by a physician can be read tens or hundreds of thousands of times. This reach isn’t merely academic– it can have real-life impacts too. In 2015, Dr. Paul Thornton at Cook Children’s Hospital was interviewed for an article on their newsroom about a new set of guidelines his team had created for screening uncontrolled hypoglycemia, a rare and severe disorder in children. About a year later, CheckUp newsroom wrote an article about a family, who having discovered Dr. Thornton’s article on Checkup Newsroom via Google Search, sought out the doctor and traveled across the country to save their child’s life.
- Some of the best content on healthcare newsrooms is often about employees – not just physicians, but nurses and other medical and administrative staff alike. Two great examples are this Checkup Newsroom story about a nurse that volunteered during Hurricane Harvey relief efforts or this OhioHealth story of a nurse who adopted a dog from recovering patients.
This type of content is an excellent tool to communicate your organizational values, including things like care, compassion, and a commitment to go above and beyond for your community.
More importantly, stories about your employees are a great way to promote inter-organizational pride. As the OhioHealth team explains, by sharing these stories they are able to promote their culture both internally and externally. Employees feel a sense of pride working for OhioHealth and are excited to share stories about themselves or their colleagues on social media, giving it a kind of viral effect.
Another tip for building a robust healthcare newsroom is to figure out how you will keep the content on your newsroom fresh.
Publishing a diverse range of content on a regular basis, including press releases, internal news, blog posts, featured stories, and healthcare industry news is vital. As your healthcare newsroom grows, aim to publish 1-2 pieces of content per week at a minimum to keep your newsroom fresh and your audiences engaged. A content calendar where you can keep an overview of new and evergreen content is a good place to begin organizing your publishing and distribution process.
Ensuring that the content is timely and newsworthy is also something to consider. Quite often, healthcare communicators become so hyper-focused on what’s happening within their own organization, they aren’t able to successfully leverage opportunities based on what their audiences are actually talking about.
Populating a newsroom with a mix of stories about your brand as well as commentary on current affairs in healthcare is an excellent strategy.
Organizations that do this well often start by forming a 'content council'. Content councils are designed to break organizational silos and bring together various communications teams including PR, Marketing, Social, Brand, etc. Discussing what each team is building for content, what is in the news that particular week, and how content and resources can be shared and allocated enables you to keep your content calendar full and fresh. Content councils also allow teams to discuss current events and consider how older stories could be repurposed for the current news cycle.
The previous example of OhioHealth’s COVID-19 coverage is a good example of this. Understanding that their audience was looking to them for relevant expertise on the topic, OhioHealth maintained a featured release with the coronavirus story at the top of their newsroom for the most part of 2020.
There are many ways of keeping on top of healthcare news. Social media platforms like Twitter are a must, particularly if you search out lists of Twitter influencers in the healthcare space. Healthcare news aggregator sites, as well as healthcare blogs, are also a good source of current news – Feedspot has an excellent list of healthcare blogs to follow.