At first, I couldn't believe my ears. In November, the public relations director of a prestigious California medical center turned down my request to interview five managers involved in its quality improvement program.
Sure, that was her prerogative. But it was the way she said, "No," that floored me.
"You're not from The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times. What would we be getting out of this?" she asked me brusquely. "We would just be doing you a favor. We're very busy here."
Biting my lip, I politely said that I would set up the interviews on my own, and I tried to explain how the appearance of a story in the newsletter about her organization would enhance its image in the healthcare community.
Persistence laced with tact and diplomacy finally prevailed. I wrote the article without extensive involvement from the public relations director. Still, the incident raises a question: Do executives and directors of marketing and public relations abuse or ignore members of the healthcare press who don't represent what they perceive to be the top publications?
Just as relations with the local press are important, there are advantages-and steps to follow-in creating a strong impression with every level of the trade press.
Find out what's being said on your behalf. A public relations director, whose hospital ironically had just been named in "The 100 Best Companies to Work for in America," informed me after five requests for a short interview that "We just don't have time for this. I never heard of your publication."
If you're not sure how media inquiries are being handled, sit down with your public relations and marketing directors to develop some goals and criteria. In what publications would you like to appear? Who's on the "A" list? What about the second tier? And what are the service standards by which the media should be treated?
Guard against becoming overly insulated-don't let secretaries or administrative assistants create impenetrable roadblocks. If a secretary thwarts a writer by saying, "There's no way you'll be able to speak to him in the next two weeks," an enterprising writer will go elsewhere to find another source.
Recognize the unique power of newsletters. While you may not believe that Medical Staff Strategy Report is in the same league as American Medical News, keep in mind that readers who subscribe to niche publications often read each issue religiously. In fact, some consulting firms say they get more serious inquiries from bylined newsletter articles than they do through quotes in major publications.
Remember the old journalism saying, "A clip is a clip." Newsletter article reprints can help you build credibility among colleagues and opinion leaders and cement relationships with prospective clients and the press.
Also, file this away: Every journalist has to start somewhere. Those "kids" who edit and write for start-up newsletters sometimes move on to high-profile news magazines or newspapers. They tend to remember executives who treat them with respect and courtesy, and they may even share those names with their colleagues in journalism.
Don't forget your manners. Try to understand how a reporter or editor on a tight deadline would like to be treated. What's your reaction to a vice president of marketing who, at the start of a telephone interview, asked me, "Do you mind if I eat my lunch while we're talking?"
What about the too-busy executive who canceled an interview twice and then insisted on being interviewed over his car phone? No one earns respect by asking a secretary to cancel an interview five minutes before it's supposed to begin, especially if they offer no explanation, apology or attempt to reschedule.
Be helpful and accessible. Two minutes after I started to interview a chief executive officer about his hospital's senior programs, he sighed and said, "You know, most of this has been well-documented in the literature." That lack of patience and kindness can stifle relationships.
If you can't participate in an interview or would prefer not to, respond promptly and politely. You can bow out gracefully by trying to share the names of alternative sources. Instead of pointing a reporter in the direction of the library, consider asking your assistant to put together a package of articles that the journalist will be to use for background.
Don't view your time with the reporter as an intrusion on your busy day, but see it as an opportunity to explain the industry and your role in it.
Ask questions. Try to get as much information as possible before you schedule an interview; there's nothing wrong with asking about the scope and function of an article, which may help you save time by directing the reporter or editor to a more appropriate source.
Don't complain, hassle or push. Don't make the mistake of a prominent Chicago healthcare attorney who recently told an audience of 200 at a physician services seminar, "That publication misquoted me." If you're genuinely unhappy about the way a subject was covered, the best approach is to send a tactful and thoroughly professional letter to the editor.
Additionally, you won't gain anything by harping on an editor to use a press release, insisting on reviewing stories before they're published or complaining about the editorial space given to a competitor.
Be candid and direct. If you don't know the answer to a question or don't feel comfortable talking about an issue, ask for more time. Most editors and reporters are willing to accommodate someone who says, "Could we schedule a time to talk tomorrow? I'd like to spend some time thinking about this tonight so I can give you my full attention."
Stay in touch. You can't buy media attention with lavish gifts or lunches. But if you come across an article or special report that might be of interest to those you know in the trade press, consider sending or faxing it with a personal note. And don't forget to keep editors and reporters posted on developments in your organization or discipline. They're always looking for fresh stories, and they appreciate getting advance warning of new and emerging trends or players.