The question top of mind for public relations professionals who don’t have a COVID-19 story to pitch is: Can I get coverage for my client or organization on a different topic?
You can, according to a panel of health care reporters at last week’s Publicity Club of Chicago monthly luncheon. (The panel was held before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic.)
“Yes, please, any other ideas are always welcome,” said Kristin Schorsch, reporter for WBEZ 91.5 Chicago. “We can’t just have COVID-19 dominating the news cycle. We have to tell people what else is going on in the world.”
Scott Becker, publisher of Becker’s Healthcare, said that although every digital newsletter’s subject line will touch on the coronavirus, “80% of the reporting isn’t solely focused on COVID-19.” A handful of the podcasts his team produces are COVID-19 focused, but not all. He cited a recent podcast with the president and CEO of Stanford Children’s Health that focused on leadership, not the coronavirus.
Two other panelists, both health care TV reporters, said COVID-19 is dominating their newsrooms. But they still welcome other pitches.
Katharin Czink, “Medical Watch” producer at Chicago’s WGN-TV, said she hasn’t had time to return to stories she shot a few weeks ago because of daily coronavirus saturation.
“I am primarily focused on COVID-19,” she said. “I hope to get back to those other stories when the time is right, but right now we need to provide perspective.”
That said, she encourages PR pros to send pitches that will be covered after the pandemic passes the news cycle.
“Please continue to pitch me, because we are still setting things up, or thinking about what we need to set up when the time comes,” Czink said.
Lauren Petty, reporter at NBC-5 Chicago, echoed Czink.
“Pitches are always welcome,” she said. “We will always look at them, but just be prepared that it’s probably going to get set up for April and potentially pushed, but getting on our radar early is never bad.”
What reporters look for
Panelists were of the same mind when offering the No. 1 pitching tip: Stress the human angle.
“The patient story, the human angle, the personal always makes it so much better for us,” Czink says. “We’re always looking for a really unique, wonderful patient-focused, human-focused feature.”
Stories that feature providers—doctors, nurses, hospital system executives—are of interest to Becker’s staff of journalists, whether it’s for a podcast, event or digital publication.
“That’s the core of our content,” Becker said. “If it’s a pitch for that, we’ll accept it almost immediately.” Pitches from a vendor or PR firm boil down to: “If it feels like a pitch, we’re almost binarily against it.”
Schorsch suggests PR pros keep both the website and audio in mind when pitching an NPR affiliate.
“For a radio station, we need characters and scenes and the ability to take people to places; that’s what we’re really trying to capture,” Schorsch said.
And, when pitching medical stories, make sure your pitch is understandable.
“Don’t start out with writing a press release that has a lot of jargon or acronyms that aren’t explained, because it makes it harder on our end to understand it and want to do a story on it,” Schorsch said. Regarding the experts you do find, “it’s really great if they’re really good at breaking down the information they’re trying to explain,” particularly the impact and significance of what they’re sharing.
Those reporter relationships that you’ve cultivated over the years? They matter now more than ever. Journalists are looking for experts they trust.
Czink and her team are calling on hospitals and contacts they’ve known for years “to pick their brains, find out who we need to be talking to at that health system in that particular hospital—what’s really happening, how are they handling it,” she said. “[I’m] calling people I talk to outside of an outbreak like this and trying to get the perspective.”