When I first started as a Public Information Officer (PIO) at a county health department, I was transitioning from a career in Public Relations (PR) at a local hospital. Most instances in PR, my job was to be "reactive." To react to a news article, provide a quote defending a negative situation, or to promote the hospital as a place to go to for treatment – after you have cancer, or after you break your leg.
As a new PIO for the health department, I adjusted to the work of promoting services to prevent disease and promote healthy lifestyles – it was a "preventative" way of thinking.
I also soon realized that the media calls for expert quotes or data points weren't coming in like I was used to at the hospital. Media headlines promoting prevention aren't as "sexy" as headlines promising treatment or the occasional controversy.
I waited for media calls after I sent press releases or tweeted new information, new data, new programs. It was slim when they called, and when they did, I wasn't always happy with the story. They didn't have enough information, have a long enough quote explaining the topic, or didn't ask to interview the right person – usually just requesting the figure head (or me!) which were not always the subject matter experts.
And in true "Olivia fashion" I thought, "I can write this better myself." So I did. I got involved.
I found that our local newspaper, The Newark Advocate, was like many local papers – struggling in the age of social media, "fake news" and multiple other news outlets cramming their market. They were down to three or four reporters and one editor. They were stretched thin and often resorted to articles about local politics, crime scenes, or sports. There was an occasional human-interest story included because the readers like "feel good" local news. But those longer, detailed stories took time and coordination and the reporters had tight deadlines.
I also found that there was a vacancy on their Editorial Board, so I applied, interviewed with the editor and was allowed to join in on the weekly in-person meetings as long as I use my personal time (lunch break). I now had input on the editorial section of the Sunday paper. I have served on this board for over three years now and it has been instrumental in me adding a bit of my health department into the editorial when appropriate. It has created partnerships and almost always portrayed my agency in a bright light.
Most importantly, being on the Editorial Board of my local newspaper has created a trust and friendship between me and the editor. If I have an event with a low budget, I will ask him to run it on the "Best Bets" event page on Thursdays. And he does. If I have a boring press release that is required to run in order to meet grant requirements, I ask him and he runs it in the business section. We go to each other's birthday parties and our kids have playdates.
This relationship benefits both of us because I started to coordinate and help write human-interest stories promoting my agency and providing the editor the "meat and potatoes" of a great feel good story. Stories his readers love. It is a win-win.
Our first collaboration was a story promoting our Tobacco Cessation program during National Kick Butts Day. I coordinated with our tobacco cessation councilors on finding a successful individual who quit smoking in their program. We asked Bobby to participate in being interviewed with our counselors and he was thrilled to be in the newspaper. Of course, his personal story had some heartache and challenges which gave the story some depth. I asked a reporter for one hour of their time and to meet us at X place, at X time, on X day. I emailed the reporter beforehand with all the information they needed about the tobacco cessation program, our counselors, and Bobby. I also emailed all the statistics and data points they may need to validate the story. I made my information as easy as "copy and paste."I prompted the questions during the interview and shaped the way I wanted the story to go. What came out was this – an interesting human interest story on a local individual who is now living a healthy life thanks to the health department.
Next, I lined up an interview promoting our Newborn Home Visiting Program. I invited the newspapers' summer intern to meet me, our Newborn Home Visiting Nurse, and a mother who recently had a newborn home visit at X address, at X time, on X day. Again, I emailed the reporter ahead of time with program information, information on our nurse, and any data or statistics to accompany the article in a nice "copy and paste" format. What came out is this – a heart-warming story on how a mother can rest easy knowing her newborn is healthy thanks to the health department.
I also coordinated an interview promoting our Breast Cancer Survivor program during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, found here. And a piece promoting the winner of a teen driver safety contest and our Safe Communities program, found here. As well as few other programs.
I realize this tactic might not work with the bigger markets – but doing some of their work for them might be a draw for the media to partner with you. Instead of just pitching a story, creating it yourself as a package might be an option – especially in local markets where journalism is strained.
Being more involved in the media by serving on their editorial board and pre-writing stories certainly worked as a way for our health department to stay in front of our residents in a positive way, plus informing the public on what we actually do – prevent disease and promote healthy lifestyles!