Using Mass Media To Spread Messages About a Quality Report

The mass media are not in business to help you. Their business is to sell advertising to companies who want to reach the people who read newspapers and magazine, watch television shows, and listen to radio programs. The “business model” of the media is to create and present content that grabs the attention of their audience.

Your job is to convince the media that you have information and stories that will be of interest to their audience. While a particular reporter might have a personal passion for what you are doing, she will still have to convince an editor or producer, who may not share that passion. Thus, your goal is to generate and present information and stories that resonate with a reporter, editor, or producer who lacks any passion for your topic. If you succeed, your message will get out to your audience (which should be similar to their audience), and that audience will pay attention to the media outlet because it is carrying your message.

Three fundamental ingredients for the successful use of media in a promotional campaign are:

  • Identifying the media outlets your audience uses, especially but not exclusively for health-related information.
  • Building and maintaining relationships with media professionals.
  • Anticipating the possibility of bad press.

Identifying Media Outlets

One important thing to learn about your audience is where they go for general news and information as well as health-specific news and information. These sources may include print media as well as web sites and social media. Some outlets will have broad audiences; others will reach more specific audiences. If you have the resources, you should try to reach both.

  • A "broadcast" strategy helps you tell the entire community, including all the stakeholders and policy makers, about you and your work. This is what people typically think of when they consider a media strategy.
  • A "narrowcast" strategy helps you reach subgroups in the community whom you have identified as part of your primary audience. Outlets may be tailored to reach:
    • Older or younger people.
    • Women or men.
    • People who come from particular countries or speak a particular language.
    • People who live in a certain neighborhood.
    • Very narrow audiences, such as the members of an organization or employees of a firm.

Examples of using the "narrowcast" mode would be:

  • Promoting a report with asthma measures through the web sites of virtual support groups for patients with asthma or their families.
  • Promoting a report with patient safety indicators by cultivating a blogger in your community who has a particular concern about patient safety.

Building Relationships With Media Professionals

Working with the media can require a great deal of time. You need time upfront to build relationships with specific reporters, producers, or bloggers, and time afterward to maintain those relationships.

Here are some specific steps for building effective media relationships:

  • Identify the reporters, producers, and bloggers who cover health care or science more broadly.
  • Meet with them to learn how they prefer to get communications from you (e.g., by email or phone).
  • Stay in touch with them.
  • Give people plenty of notice of an upcoming story opportunity. Offer to share embargoed reports when you can if they will honor the embargo.
  • Give them opportunities to watch important events unfold.
  • In addition to a long-form story, try to craft “nine-second sound bites” that quickly grab the attention first of the media, and then of the audience. Use these in your “pitches” to journalists so they can then use them in their stories.

As with any relationship, it has to be a two-way street. Media professionals have a job to do, often under deadline, and you need to be prepared when the opportunity arises for an interview:

  • Learn how to be concise and clear.
  • Do not use jargon or acronyms.
  • Clarify your messages and stay on message at all times.
  • Get media training for as many key leaders as possible.
  • Generate possible questions you may be asked and craft good answers to those questions. Take the time to identify really difficult questions and figure out how to address them.
  • Either have good answers to questions or know when to slide out from under a question that doesn’t have a good answer.
  • Learn what the media thinks is interesting to their audience and be creative about "pitching" stories that respond to their notions.

Ideas for Stories About a Quality Report

  • What motivated your effort? Was it a State legislative mandate or a group of non-elected community leaders identifying a real need? Tell that story so that it reflects the particular concerns of your state or community.
  • Who's involved? Why? How do they get along? Who's in charge? Most reporting efforts involve at least a few fairly well-known "players" in a community; highlighting their involvement will spark initial interest. If you are bringing together people who have been at odds in the past, this is also a story. If your partners can articulate what they have learned, their experiences may be of interest.
  • What does the public think of the report? What did you hear people in the community say about healthcare when you did your early audience research? Do you have compelling stories of real individuals who are willing to be identified and who would have benefited from comparative quality information when it wasn't available?
  • How do the providers or plans you rate respond to your efforts? This can be a sensitive area; you don't want the focus of the report to be on the conflicts you may be having with health plans or providers. But when providers recognize the value of your report and will talk about why they value it, their story can be of interest.
  • How are the health plans or providers in your community doing overall? Many sponsors don't want to promote stories about "who's best" and "who's worst," but they can still talk about the aspects of healthcare where the scores, overall, are either unusually high or low. Or they can talk about how their community or state compares to others, or to the nation as a whole.
  • Over time, from one report to the next, are providers and plans improving? What happens over time to scores across the board? Trends are always of interest to people in the community and seem more like "new news" to reporters.
  • What happens when specific providers use your report to make improvements in their quality? Whenever possible, provide real examples and sources for reporters to follow up.
  • What happens when patients, family members, or others use the report to make better decisions about their healthcare? How has the report made a difference to specific, real members of the community? Remember that this can include purchasers or policymakers as well as individual patients or families. Again, provide real examples and sources for reporters to follow up. If the examples come from community members, make sure you get their permission first.

If You Get Bad Press

Many sponsors of quality reports stay away from the media because they fear negative attention. Bad press can happen because the people you worked with didn’t take the time to understand your work, because you were not clear enough with them, or because a third party with a axe to grind gave the media a distorted view of events. While any of these misfortunes can happen, they are not reasons to avoid working with the media entirely, but rather for doing it carefully and strategically.

The tips above for building and sustaining a media relationship can help prevent this kind of event. If you do this well, key media professionals will turn to you for your reaction or comment rather than simply report what one group or individual has to say about you. Ask for a chance to review a piece related to your report for accuracy before it is finalized and be prepared to respond quickly enough to meet the reporter’s deadline.

How can you respond to negative coverage?

  • Address the issue calmly.
  • Provide the facts.
  • Shift the conversation to a more positive note.
  • Never say “no comment.”

Bad press is often a call for a careful self-examination by the project's leadership:

  • Did you realize that someone was that disgruntled with your efforts?
  • Have you done your best to address their concerns?
  • Have you decided that there is no way to work with them?
  • If so, can you articulate a reason for that decision that will be palatable to the public?
  • Are your communications about the project clear, or could they be interpreted in different ways?

Bad press can happen to anyone. Some of the most successful organizations providing decision support to consumers have figured out how to make the outcries of the disgruntled work to their benefit. When Consumer Reports was publicly attacked and sued by car manufacturers because they reported on serious safety problems, this situation gave them enormous visibility and, because they did not back off but demonstrated the basis for their assessments, created even greater trust among the public that the magazine was on their side.


Page last reviewed June 2019
Page originally created February 2015
Internet Citation: Using Mass Media To Spread Messages About a Quality Report. Content last reviewed June 2019. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD.
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