Sep 26, 2011

Healthcare PR – tips and tactics, new media and old

The Healthcare Beat panel at a recent Publicity Club of NY luncheon.

The Publicity Club of New York welcomed about 110 attendees to “The Healthcare Beat” earlier this month, and ProfNet editor Jason Hahn took fantastic (and we suspect frenetic) notes – the ensuing discussion was loaded with ideas and tips for anyone in the healthcare PR realm.

The luncheon discussion featured five reporters and editors who cover health-related news:

- Shannon Pettypiece, health care beat reporter, Bloomberg TV

- Alana B. Elias Kornfeld, senior editor, Huffington Post Media Group

- Katie Hobson, lead writer, Wall Street Journal’s Health Blog

- Dr. Roshini Rajapaksa, medical/health reporter, WNYW-TV (FOX 5)

- Amy Brightfield, health director, Woman’s Day

The discussion was moderated by Lisa Kovitz, executive vice president and media strategist in the consumer group at Edelman.

Below is an overview of how each of them said they like to be approached by public relations professionals, along with their perspectives on other topics.

Bloomberg TV (Shannon Pettypiece):

Pettypiece said her best relationships with folks in the industry are those that have been established for a long time. When these people call, “I listen, because they haven’t wasted my time in the past.”

She added that she views these people as sources, just like she would someone who does sales for Pfizer. Spokespeople have agendas, but so does everyone else. Having an agenda doesn’t disqualify you from being considered as a source, so long as you have a real grasp of the industry, according to Pettypiece.

Reporters will respond to sources who invest the time necessary to build relationships and specialize in what they can offer, Pettypiece said.

She also touched on some other points:

  • Though Bloomberg’s audience is concerned about money, “they’re also people who have a wife with breast cancer, a father with Alzheimer’s,” said Pettypiece. This is why she covers the health care industry from various angles.
  • When pitches are made, Pettypiece noted that including visuals is crucial. “On the TV side, sometimes — a lot of times, the visuals can make or break a story.” She recounted stories that she would’ve run but didn’t because visuals or illustrations weren’t included.
  • Bloomberg has editors who scour the wire throughout the day to find relevant press releases. This means there’s no need to call or email Pettypiece about press releases, especially when she’s alerted to news hours after it was first announced.
  • Pettypiece said because she follows trusted contacts, she finds Twitter useful. She said she’s actually found story ideas from tweets she’s seen in her stream.
  • “You need good characters.” Pettypiece added that “names make news,” citing Steve Jobs as an example. The business side of health care is “lacking good characters,” according to Pettypiece. “You know, dynamic CEOs who really go out there and say something that people really want to read about and hear what they have to say. Everyone is so nervous, and they don’t want to be noticed.” Pettypiece added that if you’re a dynamic character who takes stances on issues, you don’t have to be the CEO of a large company to be a desirable interview.
  • Pettypiece said she thought companies are shy when it comes to defending themselves in the face of a drug recall or FDA warning. She said she’s very much open to speaking with companies and CEOs in these situations to see how they’re improving and to hear their side of the story.

Huffington Post Media Group (Alana B. Elias Kornfeld):

Huffington Post’s health section is focused on being a wellness destination with a service slant rather than being a news destination, according to Kornfeld. This means book launches and small events aren’t the focus of its health coverage, something PR pros should keep in mind when pitching stories to them.

Kornfeld also made some other points:

  • When pitching experts to write for HuffPost, be sure to include a headshot, bio and brief description of what they know. Also, “Make sure it doesn’t sound like a press release.” Experts who write for HuffPost must speak on behalf of a topic, not a company.
  • “Social media is huge,” said Kornfeld. “When I see publications or publicists that are replicating the same kind of user behavior that we’re experiencing, then it’s much more of a natural fit to go to them.”
  • Kornfeld said HuffPost is a great outlet for companies caught up in controversy. “Having your client come out and defend the company in front of 250 million eyeballs is awesome.”

Wall Street Journal’s Health Blog (Katie Hobson):

Since the blog is constantly evolving, it’s hard to say exactly what kind of story works for them and what kind of story doesn’t, Hobson said. However, she did offer some examples of topics that have done well on the blog: Michael Phelps’ diet, which made for the all-time most popular post on the blog; the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s suggestions for a zombie apocalypse; the removal of Darvon and Darvocet from the market; and the question of whether too much vitamin D can be harmful.

Though the Health Blog covers a wide range of topics, Hobson said they don’t want to get “too niche.” After all, “Smart people are broadly interested.”

Hobson noted that the blog was focusing more on consumer health, which means more coverage of studies and health angles for more general events in the news (e.g., the film “Contagion” Venus Williams and Sjogren’s syndrome).

While there’s still room for pharmaceutical news, it has to come through the “lens of the consumer,” said Hobson. This means Phase IIb trials and “community-board events” aren’t going to fly.

When pitching, Hobson had these guidelines: please read the blog, email pitches to her (but don’t follow up on the phone or via email — there’s not enough time to explain why a pitch didn’t work for the blog) and art (photos, graphs and videos) is welcome.

She also touched on these points:

  • Regarding Breast Cancer Awareness month, Hobson admitted: “I’ll be honest: I have a real, personal prejudice against awareness months.” Hobson said she just doesn’t find them very useful from a news perspective. “My job is not to raise awareness; it’s to cover the news.” That said, if there’s a surprising study about breast cancer that happens to be released in October, she’d be open to writing about it.
  • “I find Twitter enormously, enormously helpful,” said Hobson. “I find it very helpful for actually establishing relationships with PR folks.” There are a few PR contacts Hobson is connected with via Twitter with whom she feels close with, despite the fact she’s met them in person just once or twice. Hobson also noted that direct messaging her via Twitter is a good way of getting her attention.

WNYW-TV (FOX 5) (Dr. Roshini Rajapaksa):

“Dr. Raj,” a practicing physician, appears on Fox 5 two or three times a week. “I’d really like to get any story — whether it’s about a new drug trial or a new treatment — and try to get the message to people about how it can really help them today.” But that’s not all — Rajapaksa said she wants to see evidence to back up broad statements about a drug. This means original studies and data.

She requests that pitches be sent directly to her personal email address (roshiniraj at yahoo.com) or to her producers.

Woman’s Day (Amy Brightfield):

Brightfield said she’s looking for “news, trends, products — everything and anything that can help our readers,” women ages 30 to about 80, live healthier lives. This means focusing on “anything that will help them make sense of all the health news and all the studies that come out, and show them how it relates to their daily lives.”

For pitches, Brightfield immediately considers what the service angle will be. Stories about drugs, for example, should highlight benefits to the reader. Brightfield also mentioned she has a hard time finding good health and fitness stories from “real women.”

Pitch stories from a different angle, she suggested, as these are the pitches that make her job easier and the ones she follows up on. Brightfield also prefers email pitches (abrightfield at hearst.com).

She offered these additional thoughts:

  • Though Brightfield doesn’t go to many meetings, she does find it helpful to get summaries of events. This is a way she identifies trends, which is what Woman’s Day focuses on.
  • She noted that WomansDay.com has a bit of a different audience, and the blog on the website takes on more conversational, lighter and singular pieces, such as “a new toothbrush that lights up and plays songs for as long as your child has to brush his teeth.”
  • For October’s issue on Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Brightfield noted that the magazine’s window for pitches closes about three months before each issue is distributed. She also mentioned the challenge of standing out in the “white noise” of so many publications covering Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The more unique the angle of the pitch, the better.
  • Brightfield said she likes getting press releases in her email inbox, though she isn’t always able to respond to each one.
  • She thinks social media is “shaking out” and that people are finding some channels are better for some activities than others. “Our Facebook page is actually a huge asset,” said Brightfield. That online community has been great for getting the pulse of Woman’s Day readers and has acted like an immediate focus group.

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