Please Release Me

Gienna Shaw, for HealthLeaders News , October 31, 2007

For many hospitals, the lowly press release must bear a yeoman's load: It is, after all, a fast and inexpensive way to get the word out to the community about everything your hospital is up to, from community health fairs to your physicians' latest accomplishments. Unfortunately, many hospitals don't do it well.

Ever since my first job as a reporter, writing obituaries and the police log for my hometown paper, I've been getting pitches from public relations professionals. I might not be an expert in PR, but I can give healthcare marketers a few lessons learned from being on the receiving end of press releases for more than 20 years:

1. Don't call me; I'll call you--maybe. Every year I get a survey from a public relations firm and one of the questions is always worded the same way: If you could give us one piece of advice, other than not to call you to follow up on press releases, what would it be? And every year, my answer is the same: Don't call me to follow up on press releases. I usually add a bunch of exclamation points, depending on how many calls I've received that week from PR folks asking me if I received their press release. Calling the local reporter in your town, who is just as overwhelmed, does more harm than good.

2. Know your audience--and your audience's audience. One of the reasons I can't respond to every press release I get is that I get so many of them--and the vast majority are totally inappropriate for my audience of healthcare marketers. To be honest, there are a lot of them I don't even understand. And some of them are icky--I hate opening press releases with pictures of skin conditions, in particular. Especially if the pictures are hi-res. So feel free to send press releases about health fairs to the local calendar editor, but direct the rest to the medical journals instead.

3. And that's another thing--don't send a big attachment with your e-mailed press releases. I only have so much bandwidth in my inbox and once it's filled up I can no longer receive my mom's daily missives. And I'm suspicious of attachments that might contain viruses (or hi-res pictures of them). If I want a headshot of your new director of infection control (and I don't), I'll ask you for one when I call you.

4. Write in plain English. The reporters and editors at HealthLeaders Media happen to be especially savvy and knowledgeable about healthcare issues. The truth is, I know more about infection control and patient safety and quality scores and accreditation than the average person. But if I get a press release that starts with an unpronounceable scientific name or a medical device with a purpose that can't be described in five words or less, I'm going to delete it or throw it away unread. I imagine the reporter at the Picayune feels much the same way.

There's one more rule, and this is the most important one. You can ignore the rules if--and this is a big if--you are absolutely certain that your message is on target and you have bothered to do a little research into what the reporter covers.

There are a handful of PR folks who know they can call me and ask if I got their press releases. Who know, in fact, that I'll go scurrying to look through my emails to make sure I did get them, because I know they will contain information that my readers want and need to know. I'll even put up with a press release from a hospital or health system that sends me an attachment of an extremely cool ad--because I happen to really like extremely cool ads. You should build that kind of relationship with the reporters and editors who cover your hospital.

As for the fourth rule--write in plain English? Although it seems non-negotiable, the truth is that you can get away with breaking it if--and only if--you are smarter than me. Which means that every one of my sources and PR contacts can break this rule, too. After all, a smart reporter surrounds herself with even smarter sources. Be that smart source (or find one in your organization) for whatever media outlets cover your healthcare organization.

Gienna Shaw is an editor with HealthLeaders magazine. She can be reached at

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