Once a reporter, always a reporter.
That's the adage Danielle Cass subscribes to as the communications manager at Kaiser Permanente. With a writing background in newspapers and magazines, she still thinks like a reporter—even though she crossed over to the "dark side" 15 years ago, she says.
"When you pitch a reporter, think to yourself, 'What do they need to make this a story? What can they say to their editor to make this compelling?'"
To achieve this, Cass advises hospital communicators to pay attention to details and grammar and to write pithy leads when pitching reporters. Write your pitch like a news story—make it flawless.
Before you write, do your research.
Ideally, Cass says she'd like to spend two months researching a given topic or material before pitching the media. First, she calls Kaiser medical experts and asks him or her explain the facts behind the research.
"I play 'dumb'," Cass says. "I want them to explain it to me to make sure I understand it fully. I read all the white papers and peer-reviewed journal articles, too."
A few weeks before she starts pitching, she goes through the editing process with her medical experts and bosses. She takes the time to make sure everything is correct.
Next, she'll start planning corollary materials to go along with the pitch. This includes making a Flip video, finding research links and prepping physicians with interview questions.
For example, after she finished writing a press release about severe childhood obesity, she knew she had to find the right spokesperson to bring the study to life. She reached out within her staff and network to find Dr. Amy Porter at Kaiser. Cass spent time practicing interview questions with her to make sure she was camera-ready.
The video was picked up by NPR, Time and US News & World Report.
Cass knows that communicators don't always have two months to prepare before a release, "but if you can plan ahead, the added time will give you more of a chance to create excellent content," she says.
Think about context
Your press release needs to be written in the proper context. Put simply, "You have to figure out how big a deal it is," Cass says.
For example, if it's the first study that's done of its kind, a hospital communicator could add a line: "More research needs to be done…" or "This follows a series of supporting research…"
"You've got to be careful," Cass says. "You don't want to overplay your study. You don't want the media to go crazy and over-saturate the news cycle."
Once people at your hospital realize you can get the job done, you'll see more story ideas coming your way, Cass says. That doesn't mean you should tackle every idea that lands on your desk. With the help of researchers, scientists and physicians, you can and should winnow story topics.
Cass says she's developed a "bucket system." She puts stories into three categories. One category is for urgent, critical studies that need to be out there; another is for studies that can be put on hold; and the last one is for studies that need more data or with raw evidence. This bucket system helps her plan what to pitch and when to do it.
Act like a story machine
Start generating story ideas by getting around your hospital, Cass says.
"Walk around the floor," Cass says. "Attend team meetings, make phone calls, and interact with doctors, physicians, lawyers and nurses."
Ask people at your hospital: What does success look like to you? Where do you want to be a year from now?
For example, Cass learned that Kaiser Permanente wanted The New York Times reporter Allison Arieff to cover its branding campaign. Cass reached out to Arieff directly, and this article appeared in the newspaper:
Another way to generate story ideas is to conduct a yearly internal communications road show within the hospital. This is where you gather executive leadership and researchers in the same room and explain what your job is and how you collect story ideas.
Cass says some researchers are wary about the hospital's communications or PR efforts.
"Researchers want the research to speak for itself," Cass says. "I respect that. I get that. They don't want to be accused of over-promoting their work, but it's our job as communicators to convey the research to the audiences who need it."
Tailor your pitch to your audience
Cass pitches to print media, social media and bloggers—each with a distinct approach.
Newspapers are short-staffed. Very few have dedicated medical reporters. That means you might be working with someone who doesn't know the difference between Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes.
"It's your job to bring the language down," Cass says. "Make sure the language you're using over the phone or by e-mail is simple and accessible," Cass says.
For bloggers, the news cycle is more immediate. Plus, you can send bloggers images, links, graphics and photos for a robust package in your pitch. Cass says it's important to reach out directly to influential bloggers and to know what they like to write about.
Cass recommends that hospital communicators set up a Twitter account.
"Use it as a tool and look into search functions, and monitor the dialogue," Cass says. "It's another way you can connect with news organizations and find prominent voices in the health-care space."
Your hospital can also be a resource for journalists. The KP News Center was developed four years ago as a way for the hospital to tell its stories.
The News Center is filled with press releases, videos and current event topics for journalists. The simple navigation makes it easy to follow Kaiser through social media and gives a list of media contacts for reporters.
Relevance, relevance, relevance
When you're ready to write, ask yourself: Why should this reporter care? Write your press release as though they should.
Start with a pithy e-mail subject line to pull the reporter in, Cass says. Ideally, a reporter will walk into the editor's office, holding up her press release, and say, "Look, here's our story."
How can you make this happen? Keep it short.
Write the first paragraph just as you want to see it in the publication, Cass says. That means cutting out the PR jargon. Don't editorialize; make it crisp.
For your second paragraph, put it in context. Tell the reporter why it's newsworthy. Consider writing several bullet points.
She gives the example of pitching Anderson Cooper's producer about how extreme obesity is affecting more children at younger ages. When she tuned into an episode of Anderson Cooper 360, he used two of the three bullet points that she e-mailed.
"This is a reflection of what's happening in the media," Cass says. "A lot of media outlets are short-staffed. If you do your due diligence and put together a well-rounded piece, you could see your press release picked up word for word."
Your third paragraph can be a quote, but be careful. "Make sure it's something that somebody would actually say," Cass says. "Let the quote advance your message."
Jessica Levco is co-editor of Health Care Communication News, where a version of this story first appeared.