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Reverse Engineer Your Story-Telling

Reverse Engineer Your Story-Telling

A couple of years ago, a client of mine who launched a health IT startup, marveled at the number of healthcare entrepreneurs who came up with a cool idea and then went in search of a market for it. In most cases, he told me, this approach found them struggling to find a toe-hold. The smart play was to study the market first, identify and understand the core challenges of the market’s customers, then develop a solution to overcome those challenges.

This very same problem afflicts many health IT companies when pitching the media. A company’s marketer or PR pro will identify a story—about the company’s leadership, success with a client or the development of a new innovation—then set out to find a reporter to write it up and publish it.

More often than not, the results leave much to be desired.

For sustained PR success, your content needs to fit the contours of whatever narrative or story journalists and editors are focusing on—and that requires an ability to reverse-engineer those stories to match the priorities of the target journalist.

While you may believe that the story you want to tell is important, people outside of your organization probably don’t feel the same way—at least, not without some modifications. It’s a hard lesson to internalize, I know. I have been fortunate to work with clients who I really believe in, but the inherent risk of that positive sentiment is an inability to look at a story from outside the four walls of the organization that wants to tell it.

While it’s tempting to jump right into the pool with a pitch, it’s often tactical and short-sighted. Even if you do generate a few quality media hits, they’ll be quickly pushed aside by the next piece of content—and the one after that and the one after that.

When it comes to story-telling, I always start by asking my clients what results they want to achieve, then reverse-engineer a strategy to accomplish those goals. A friendly download will help set priorities and ensure that you are pursuing the right story-telling strategy.

For example, a company that wants to make a big splash at a massive conference like HIMSS should probably focus more on sponsored content buys for the main course, and use earned media as an extra side of gravy.

When earned media interviews and placements are the main prize, I like to start with a deeper, more granular narrative that aligns the client’s story with broader industry trends, research and compelling statistics and is collated into a pitch ‘bible.’ This resource contains the ‘main plot’ of the story the client wants to tell, but also includes a number of subplots and alternative narratives that allows me to cast my pitching net much wider.

It’s an extremely useful tool, because it allows you to quickly customize pitches based on a journalist’s priorities and beats. (You want to spend enough time on the front-end, so you can be quick and nimble on the back-end). It also allows you, as a marketer or PR pro, to see the forest for the trees; developing second and third wave pitching that will sustain over the course of weeks and months. This strategy also allows you to seamlessly align with other content developers, including marketers and social media managers for targeted outreach and creative amplification.

The writing of this broad narrative coincides with research into the target journalists and publications. What have they covered? Where are the logical places they will take their story-telling next? What specific hooks can I create that will convince them that my story is worth the time and effort to write?

Critically, how does all that research change they way I am telling my story—and do those alterations still align with the client’s desired results?

In today’s environment, it’s no longer enough to have a story. Health IT is one of the most hyper-competitive industries around. Sustaining traction, much less enjoying inbound inquiries, in an ever-shrinking media environment is a constant challenge for all but the most well-known tech brands.

By identifying the challenges and desires of the media, you can reverse-engineer a story to meet those challenges and find enduring media success.

Changes around daily newspapers are creating a chill for journalists

The Dog Eat Dog Days of PR in the Internet Age: Part One

Who watches the watchdogs?  It’s a phrase that conjures the creation of police commissions or intelligence oversight committees.  But if you’re a believer in the sanctity of the Fourth Estate (and God knows we need them now more than ever), then the watchdogs who need watching are journalists.  And no one watches – or analyzes, or critiques – journalists in greater depth and with sharper insight than the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University.

The purpose of the Nieman Lab is to figure out how journalism can adapt to the Internet Age while remaining relevant and profitable. Recently, in “Newsonomics: The 2016 Media Year by the Numbers and a look toward 2017,” the Nieman Lab’s Ken Doctor turned up some fascinating trends that will both bedevil and delight those of us in PR and business who strive daily, with more or less success, to earn the media’s adoration and praise.

Have Your Fake and Eat it Too

The bedeviling side of Nieman Lab’s look back at 2016 is the messy shift from print to digital, a transformation long underway that is weighing ever more heavily on the news media. The industry-rocking trend of 2016, of course, was the rise of “fake news” – or rather the rise in awareness of fake news, thanks to the Presidential Election.  Doctor takes some easy swipes at Mark Zuckerberg for his much-publicized claim that 99% of Facebook’s content isn’t fake. “Ever heard a publisher proudly proclaim, ‘We get it right 99 times out of a hundred?’” he asks.

But the fake news phenomenon isn’t going to have much impact on the field of technology PR.  More significant for the business of Media Relations is the sharp increase in the number of PR “targets” as the Internet continues to make it easier for small, independent content producers to compete with the mainstream media. This democratization of publishing and broadcasting offers both more opportunities and more diluted opportunities for getting the word out about a company, a product, or a thought leader.

The Young and the Restless

Here’s Nieman Lab’s take on one of the biggest online outposts, a not-so-new media that has finally come into its own after a decade of unrealized promise and that is quickly disrupting its Old Media birthplace, radio:

“Podcasting now reshuffles the deck, mixing and matching talent on scheduled airtime and on demand, with unpredictable consequences. The movement of younger talent within the emerging podcast economy poses both a great opportunity and threat for public radio as we know it, and is a boon for newer entrants like Gimlet Media, Panoply, This American Life/Serial, and Midroll Media.”

A related trend that accelerated in 2016 and into 2017 is the flight of ad revenue from mainstream publishing as advertisers spread their dollars online in search of eyeballs (and now ears, too).

“The Wall Street Journal lost more than a fifth of its overall advertising revenue in the third quarter of 2016,” Doctor writes. Other blue ribbon outlets suffered similar losses: The New York Times saw print ad revenue decline by 18 percent; McClatchy reported a 17 percent loss; Gannet lost 15 percent; and Tronc (the former Tribune Company) lost 11 percent.

To compensate for those huge loses, publishers are seeking revenue directly from readers in the form of digital subscriptions and add-ons. That requires high-quality content and attractive digital platforms – something that “only the national/global dailies have been able to achieve,” according to Doctor.  How will the rest of the nation’s dailies fare amid this historic transformation?  Judging by the number of journalists losing their jobs, not so well.  Nielsen Lab counted just 27,300 journalists working for U.S. dailies in 2016, 4,000 of whom work for the four national titles.  The size of the local press has declined by half, according to Doctor.

Heads Up to PR customers

What does that mean for PR? The math is pretty simple.  With an ever smaller number of traditional publications managing to keep the lights on, the competition for coverage among the dailies is becoming downright cutthroat. The days of guaranteeing that a successful company in a hot market will be covered by The New York Times or Wall Street Journal are over.

So what’s the answer?  How can companies in search of media coverage adjust to this fast-evolving environment?

You can read the answer in Part Two of this post.  In the meantime, a few hints: Traditional PR is dead.  The press release as many people think of it is a goner. Thought leadership will be a key PR budget priority. Content is (roll your eyes if you must) king.

But in the end, it’s still all about relationships.

Strategies to make the news when you're not well-known

How to Make the News, Even When You’re Not the Headline

Many companies hire PR agencies because they want to make the news, i.e., see their stories splashed on the front pages of USA Today or the Wall Street Journal or featured in a top-tier technology publication. Such a media hit rarely happens overnight, as the bar for a solo feature profile is incredibly high. To put this into perspective, even Steve Jobs had to patiently wait a few years before he became the story.

A PR colleague who used to work for Regis McKenna (Apple’s PR agency of record in the 80s) recalled a meeting in which Jobs asked when she would get him on the cover of Fortune. She answered with brutal honesty. Jobs in turn hurled a glass of water at her. He did call her the following morning to apologize and they continued to work together. And, as you know, in his lifetime, Jobs graced not just magazine covers but books, movies and documentaries.

So if you’re not Steve Jobs and you’re not the story, what’s the next best thing?

Pitch a bigger story

News outlets seek stories with broad appeal and meaning, which will discount most pitches about CEOs and company missions. Instead, craft your pitch around an interesting development in your field that’s happening and not enough people are talking about. A very effective strategy here is to conduct a survey and then report the results. Amendola client Health Catalyst did that last year, garnering considerable coverage. Or, pitch a story based on a larger societal trend or current news event, provided you can make a direct connection to it—and offer up one of your company’s thought leaders to weigh in.

Yes, your company and mission can be a facet of the above pitch types, but tread carefully. The goal at this point is to get the process going, become a part of the story and build your profile as a valued source. Think of your company’s media career as that of an actor who is steadily building up his or her credentials, in one increasingly larger role after another. Over time, more audiences become aware of the actor. If the roles are in quality, interesting productions, the audience’s interest and like of the actor will grow as well.

Let your client (the end-user) take center stage

Oftentimes editors are more interested in the end user, not the vendor. They don’t want to report about software, but actual use cases, as evidenced by this article in Network World. Originally, we pitched a broad story about private healthcare data being stored on public clouds. This was enough to pique the interest of a tech reporter at Network World, who then asked to speak to a hospital CIO about the risks and benefits of storing sensitive information on public clouds. The reporter immediately saw the need for a sidebar about a HIPAA-compliant cloud and ended up quoting our client extensively in it.

So you see, being a sidebar or a part of a bigger story are just a couple of ways to prime the pump on your way to being THE story. You just need the guidance of seasoned PR professionals to help make it happen. We stand ready to help…only non-water throwers, please.

Getting healthcare vendor clients to do PR can feel like a tug of war.

Prepping Healthcare Vendor Customers for Public Relations

It happens to healthcare vendors all the time…

It’s a great day at the office. Your sales team inks a deal with a major client. Your development team tells you that a recent implementation has been an earth-shattering success. An industry-renowned customer casually mentions to your CEO that your company’s platform should be an industry standard.

You fire off an email to your PR agency and the machine is set in motion. Press releases are drafted. Media alerts are sent. A steady cadence of pitches for bylines, case studies, and interviews land in the inboxes of scores of reporters and editors. Momentum begins to build.

You turn to your marketing team to begin coordinating strategy with your PR team, when suddenly a single e-mail or phone call brings the entire endeavor to a screeching halt.

Your customer—the shining example of your company’s efficacy in a fiercely competitive marketplace—can’t or won’t do a press release. Previously unknown policies against speaking to the media begin to pop up. Oh, and about that opportunity to co-present at a major healthcare conference—yeah, turns out they will have to pass on that, too. So sorry, but perhaps they can do… something… as long as it is stripped of any quotes, endorsements, or mentions of the client.

A healthcare vendor’s clients are a critical and bountiful resource for your PR and marketing program. They offer third-party validation for the efficacy of your solution within the industry. They act as vendor-neutral sources for editors and reporters in the trade and business press. They provide real-world solidity to the larger trends and narratives impacting healthcare in the United States.

Though your clients may understand the value they could bring to your PR strategy, that doesn’t mean they will go along with it. Communication with a healthcare vendor’s clients about PR initiatives not only clears up misunderstandings, but also helps establish with your client boundaries and a level of comfort about deliverables being created with their name and reputation affixed to it.

Here are some tips to consider:

Reach out to their PR department. A big part of PR is relationship building. A quick huddle with your client’s PR or corporate communications department and agency is great for setting boundaries about what they will or won’t participate in.

Consider contractual language. Speak with your sales and legal teams. Do you contracts include any language about PR participation? Most client would understandably balk at being required to participate in a full-fledged PR campaign, but many contracts have a line or two mandating that a press release be distributed within 60 to 90 days of signing the contract.

Introduce your agency. You know and trust your PR agency—but that doesn’t mean your client does. A quick meeting between your agency and your client clears the air and ensures that everyone is on the same page.

Share your plan. Any client who is participating in your PR efforts should have a voice in the actual strategy and tactics. This thinking goes beyond press release approval. It includes how and when they will be positioned and prepared for media interviews, speaking engagements, or other opportunities.

Establishing a regular cadence and open line of communication with a healthcare vendor’s client’s marketing and PR team ensures that you both make the most of your public relations efforts.