7 ways to create a dynamite health care newsroom

Tell stories of hope. Make the most of your experts. Jettison the jargon. By writing narratives—rather than pitching dull press releases—you might even end up on ESPN.

When Charles Krauthammer was paralyzed from the neck down in a diving accident in 1972, it seemed the first-year Harvard medical school student would never achieve his ambition to become a doctor.

Yet he managed to graduate with his class, earn his medical degree and eventually become a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist.

Before his death in June, he wrote to Shepherd Center , an Atlanta rehabilitation hospital for patients with brain and spinal injuries, to express his gratitude for treatment he had received there.

The hospital pushed out the story in its newsroom, offering Krauthammer’s grit and determination as a story of hope, says Jane Sanders, director of public relations and digital marketing.

Shepherd Center is one of many health care organizations demonstrating the power of a new style of external communication that relies on storytelling rather than cranking out stuffy press releases. (The hospital’s newsroom is hosted by PressPage.)

Here are lessons from successful newsrooms at Shepherd Center, Children’s Mercy Kansas City and other hospitals.

1. Don’t just pump out press releases. Tell stories.

Storytelling should be woven into every press release and marketing message, says Jake Jacobson, director of public relations at Children’s Mercy. It can replace or augment the traditional news release, because one can slip strategic messaging into an engaging narrative.

Stories are “more likely to be shared and retold than just spamming out press releases,” Jacobson says. “You’re more likely to remember it and retell it as a consumer and an audience member if you hear it as a story than if you hear it as an announcement or a press release or a tag line.”

Example? Children’s Mercy sponsors Sporting Kansas City, a major league soccer team. Many people thought the whole point was to get the hospital’s name on the side of the stadium, Jacobson says. Yet the partnership brought additional opportunities to tell stories creatively.

The hospital has a “remote experience robot” consisting of an iPad on a pole with a pair of self-balancing wheels. Patients can control REX the robot as it scoots along the sidelines, allowing kids in hospital beds to watch the action and even interview players.

“We tell people the story of our kids getting to experience a sporting match up close and personal … as if they were there and walking around the stadium, because they’re controlling this robot,” Jacobson says.

The story was unusual enough for ESPN to cover it . What sealed the pitch, Jacobson adds, was that Children’s Mercy created a video about REX.

2. Tap your employees.

Many hospitals offer accounts of their caregivers to humanize their staff in the public eye. OhioHealth tells the story of a young critical care fellow . Cook Children’s Health Care System in Fort Worth, Texas, relates what inspires its physicians .

“If you walk into a room and see a 6-month-old child, and it doesn’t make you beam, you shouldn’t go into pediatrics,” one physician says.

At Shepherd Center, patients tend to stay for weeks or months, so they form close bonds with their doctors and nurses, Sanders says. The hospital often creates clinical staff profiles in a Q&A format. A recent installment discussed a popular doctor, Wesley Chay, and the rewards of his work, as well as the challenges he faces.

Shepherd Center promoted the story on Facebook , where it drew engagement from patients and fans. People wrote comments such as, “Love Dr. Chay and the team, good peeps!!” and “Awesome Doctors!”

The hospital also provided coverage when the road in front of the Shepherd Center was renamed for its founder , allowing the organization to retell its story.

To find stories, put out the word among your staff. Encourage employees and physicians to pitch stories to your newsroom team.

3. Cover medical advances using everyday language.

It is important to inform the public about developments in medicine and technology. What you don’t want, however, is technical jargon.

Shepherd Center describes complicated conditions using laymen’s language in a story on treating patients with low-level consciousness due to brain injury , Sanders says.

At Children’s Mercy, physicians and nurses discuss treatment every day with worried children and parents. They have learned to use straightforward terms, Jacobson says.

“They’re so used to making this relatable to patients and families that when we work with them … they phrase it in a way that makes it relatable as opposed to medical gobbledygook,” Jacobson says.

4. Tell ‘stories of hope.’

One Shepherd Center story told how a paraplegic student walked through graduation with the help of a robotic exoskeleton .

“This was a goal of his,” the patient’s mother was quoted as saying. “He didn’t care how he did it. One way or another, he was going to walk across that stage.”

Stories such as Krauthammer’s can offer hope to patients wondering how they will cope with a spinal injury. Shepherd Center promotes these stories through LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter directly from PressPage.

The hospital can track social engagement through Hootsuite, and PressPage provides metrics. Boosting traffic through Facebook paid promotions is cheap, costing $25 to $50, Sanders says. The promoted Krauthammer story drew 20,000 impressions on Facebook, she says.

“If something’s getting good engagement, we might still boost it to drive even more engagement,” she says.

5. Use your patients as resources.

Shepherd Center often produces stories on topics such as how a person in a wheelchair can perform a task in the community, Sanders says. One story featured beaches that are wheelchair accessible .

“They learn a lot from each other, because there’s no set way to do one thing, but they can provide insight to their peers,” Sanders says.

6. Know your audiences.

As a referral-based children’s hospital, Children’s Mercy medical staff aren’t primary care physicians. To spread the word about the healing it does, it must address two audiences:

  • Referring physicians
  • Patients’ families, or its consumer audience

Don’t use the same content for such different audiences and social media platforms, Jacobson says. Facebook tends to be the best way to approach Children’s Mercy’s families. To reach physician peers and staff at other medical institutions, LinkedIn works best.

Either way, take an extra minute or two to recast your post for the intended audience.

“By tweaking it ever so slightly,” Jacobson says, “you let them know we are actually talking to you, and not just spamming you with the same message that was sent out to everybody.”

7. Newsjack wisely.

Children’s Mercy is always listening on social media and following the news, but its communicators are judicious about jumping in with a post or a story for the newsroom.

This year’s flu season was particularly severe, Jacobson says. Because the hospital has national experts on the topic, it weighed in.

“If we see something that is in the news and we think our audience can benefit from our perspective on it, then we will say something,” Jacobson says. “But we also shy away from jumping on a topic just because it’s trending.”

Effective Healthcare Public Relations goes beyond the standard press release model and tells your organization’s story through your patients, doctors and staff. PressPage provides the tools to make this easy. PressPage is an online newsroom software provider specializing in the creation of advanced social newsrooms, virtual press centers and online media hubs which enable brands to publish and distribute rich content, and provides direct insights into the results.

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