7 steps for health care organizations helping reporters cover COVID-19

Uncertainty reigns as the outbreak widens and seemingly trustworthy sources spin data and forecasts. Journalists want to get the facts straight for their audiences; here’s what you can do.

When working with reporters covering COVID-19, a solid crisis communications plan will help guide your health care organization’s strategy.

Still, as with any multifaceted issue, many tactics must be tailored to the situation.

Follow these tips to ensure your media relations team is ready to respond to both routine and urgent inquiries related to COVID-19:

  • Coordinate in advance with health authorities. These could include your state department of health and possibly local and county-level agencies. Connect with their media teams now if you haven’t done so already, and reconnect with them often, demonstrating an interest in teaming up—not just if and when cases are identified but also for broader coverage efforts around coronaviruses.
  • Partner with journalists to get out the right information. Develop a list of subject matter experts from all relevant departments and disciplines, noting the specific expertise offered by each. Tapping into this knowledge, compile fact sheets and talking points for use in fielding inquiries. (Repurpose these for other internal and external audiences, including social media.) This will help prepare you to respond promptly to journalists, to steer them toward either information or a relevant subject matter expert. If no one is available by the deadline, point them toward another agency or organization that could help—and give their office a quick heads-up. On the proactive side, look for specific issues or trends that could make for good pitches.
  • Help journalists with context and perspective. If you receive a request that seems far-fetched or sensational, don’t ignore it. Rather, explain your concerns to the reporter and back them with facts from your clinical team. When possible, offer to help the reporter with a different story. Meantime, before they grant any interviews, coach your experts on how to recognize a flawed question and challenge its premise while still providing clear and accurate information.
  • Set ground rules early. In addition to reinforcing your organization’s standard practices around patient privacy, be clear about any additional procedures you’ve implemented around coronavirus. For many hospitals, this includes making it clear that they would work with authorities to provide timely notification of a presumed or confirmed case—but that they’re not going to disclose or confirm to news outlets when a patient is being tested. Being consistent with such rules across all your interactions is crucial.
  • Be reassuring but honest. We all want to reassure the public that we have things under control to the greatest extent possible. We also know that unexpected challenges are inevitable in such situations. Being transparent about problems that arise and steps your organization is taking to overcome them helps to build trust with journalists and the public alike.
  • Vet your “We’re treating a coronavirus patient” language now. If and when your clinical team confirms a positive result, you must communicate the information quickly to both internal and external audiences. In the moment, delays caused by leadership review of such a statement can risk your losing control of the message as the rumor mill kicks into action. Preparing and vetting this language will save you headaches down the road.
  • Track all media inquiries. For our team, this is a spreadsheet that includes every interaction, including one-off questions. Columns should include the outlet, reporter, team member who’s assigned, date, outcome and whether follow-up is needed, as well as a link to the resulting story, when possible. Include proactive pitches on this list, as well. Doing this will help you to track workflow and spot trends amid the flood of inquiries, helping you shift your strategy “on the run.”

Your media strategy is part of a broader communication plan for messaging about a crisis. It warrants special attention, though, because media relations represents an opportunity to collaborate with journalists to convey relevant and timely information to the public.

Scott Gilbert is team lead for public relations and multimedia at Penn State Health and Penn State College of Medicine.

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