Three New Strategies for Effective Media Relations

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Today, there are a lot of communications people wringing their hands about the dearth of traditional media outlets and trying to find new ways to reach out to journalists who are interested in their organizations’ work and mission. Tried-and-true distribution channels are being replaced by a bewildering multiplicity of Internet outlets. Editors and press contacts are now bloggers and Twitter feeds. Press releases can seem like ticker tape floating over a digital parade.  The challenge of placing well-edited, well-researched, in-depth material in front of the right audience can feel like trying to outpace an iPad with a manual typewriter.

These changes also provide opportunities for new approaches. Take The Commonwealth Fund, which is investing in several new — what might be called — “media relations 2.0″ strategies. In one case, it is piloting a program to provide content for small-town newspapers.  In another effort, it is complementing pitching new journalists with educating them.  As a third way, the Fund is partnering with a venerable  journalism institution to provide cutting-edge health care reporting online.  In each case, the focus is on cultivating and maintaining cadres of professional, trained health care journalists and relationships with traditional, trusted publications. As part of The Commonwealth Fund’s mission to promote a high-performing health care system that achieves better access, improved quality, and greater efficiency for all, these programs are designed to put well-researched information about health care issues in front of a broad audience.

BAS_Dixon-317small“Media organizations – especially the smaller ones — are so strapped for resources right now that quality material is sometimes hard to come by, and journalists are often hard pressed to stay up to date,” says Barry Scholl, Commonwealth Fund senior vice president for communications and publishing. “If we can help reporters and editors stay informed, and support good health care journalism at the same time, we have to try and do it.”

Scholl has a small grant fund that he can draw on to help advance the foundation’s strategic communications activities. This means he can play program officer to underwrite select initiatives designed to boost the visibility of The Commonwealth Fund as a significant source of health care research, as well as encourage high-quality reporting on important issues in the field.  Scholl emphasizes “small” when it comes to his office’s grantmaking – it’s a relatively tiny discretionary budget that he uses judiciously by working through intermediaries such as national and regional news associations.  According to Scholl, it’s a way to go “beyond meeting the usual suspects – the key reporters from major organizations who already know us and understand our content. This is a way to reach a broader group of journalists, and — in some cases — a consumer audience more directly.”

Here are the details:

Pilot Model for Creating a State Rural Health News Service

Working with the Nebraska Press Association (NPA), one grant provides member newspapers with bi-weekly columns on health policy. The NPA contracts with veteran journalists to produce the pieces and tip sheets to help newspapers generate their own stories. The Fund provides infographics for some of the articles.  There are approximately 185 daily and weekly local newspapers in Nebraska and, according to Scholl, their readership can exceed 90 percent.  Three packets have been distributed so far and more than 40 papers picked up each.  “It’s admittedly a low-tech approach,” says Scholl,”but if it is successful we’ll think about how we might scale it for other state press associations.” The grant pays for a writer and in-kind support from Commonwealth’s in-house designers. It is a low-cost, high-yield method for supporting local media and educating a rural population.

The Business of Health Care: A Symposium

The Fund has also partnered with the Society of American Business Editors and Writers (SABEW) to provide a select group of business journalists with training on complex health reform and health care topics.  The 17 reporters and editors, chosen from a national pool of more than 50 applicants, attended a two-day symposium this January, held in New York and hosted by SABEW, where they received “an intense education on health care issues that would be unavailable to them otherwise,” says Scholl. The group heard from national policy experts, former administration officials, small business people and veteran health care journalists. By funding this event, Scholl’s offices cultivate informed journalists on the subject of health care, and also position the Fund as an ongoing source of information for future reporting – a key component of its mission. This article in NewsOK, the online branch of The Oklahoman was one of the first results to come out of the symposium.

The Second Opinion: Elevating the Coverage of Health Care Policy

Finally, the Fund is partnering with the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), a highly respected, 50-year-old journalism criticism magazine, that has, of late, been greatly expanding its online content. CJR is principally known for its fair, useful and in-depth criticism, which results in credibility with national reporters and editors.  “CJR’s frank assessments,” says Scholl, “spur real changes in newsrooms.” Scholl was able to make a grant to CJR to support the creation of a health care journalism blog called The Second Opinion that launched this month. As with the rest of CJR’s policy coverage, staff writers will produce explainers to help regional and national journalists find their way through complicated issues.  The partnership will help journalists call out weak coverage on health care issues and champion good work.

“The Affordable Care Act is going to bring vast changes to the U.S. health care system over the next two years,” says Scholl. “There’s plenty  The Commonwealth Fund, and other foundations, can do to help ensure that the media are ready to report accurately on the impact of this landmark law.”

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