Atundra Horne, a home health nurse for Advocate Health Care, serves patients in some of Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods. She grew up on these streets, but these days Horne makes her rounds with an armed escort, typically an off-duty police officer.
Horne’s story has all the makings of a perfect media pitch: compelling content, a hot news topic, and great timing.
But Advocate Public Affairs Director, Stephanie Johnson, didn’t bother writing a press release or a story pitch to alert media. Instead, she directed reporters to the story she had just posted on health enews, Advocate’s new brand journalism site.
CNN producer, Stephanie Smith loved the story and wrote her own piece for CNN.com. In a few weeks, she’ll be back to walk the streets with Horne to produce a news segment with CNN medical reporter Sanjay Gupta.
Health enews is the latest entry in the hottest trend in communications: brand journalism. Advocate joins other major organizations, from Coca-Cola to HSBC in creating consumer-friendly news sites to attract eyeballs—and showcase their brands.
This approach—using an in-house newsroom to reach reporters, employees and consumers—is particularly appealing to hospitals, which deal every day with dramatic stories of saving lives and with health issues of interest to most people. Cleveland Clinic and Mayo Clinic also have invested in brand journalism sites.
Grabbing media attention
Ragan Communications worked with the Illinois-based health care provider to create the site.
“We believe that brand journalism is an important way to share our stories and a more effective way to engage reporters who are looking for interesting and newsworthy topics to cover,” says Johnson, a former television journalist.
For Advocate the need was pressing, she says. Advocate is headquartered in the Chicago suburbs, and nine of its 10 hospitals are outside the city limits. When television crews look for sources, they tend to round up the usual suspects at a couple of major hospitals downtown.
“We want to be top of mind when it comes to getting our docs and clinicians media opportunities,” Johnson says.
Ragan project consultant Jim Ylisela, a veteran journalist who worked with Advocate to develop the new website, says brand journalism helps the hospital group stand out in a competitive marketplace, appealing to health consumers as well as media.
Employees make up a third audience. The not-for-profit health system employs 33,000 people and is one of the largest providers in the Midwest, with more than 250 care centers. It is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the United Church of Christ.
So what’s the hospital’s return on its investment? In addition to increased media attention, health enews stories link to Advocate experts, so a story about cataract surgery would quote a doctor using a new non-surgical treatment. Readers can click on the link, learn more and make an appointment.
The only ads on the site are for Advocate’s many free services, such as free blood pressure screenings, a weight loss clinic, or a lecture on living with cancer. The site can track registrations for these services that come directly from health enews.
“Useful content and compelling stories draw people to the site, and then to the physicians and expert care Advocate offers,” Ylisela says.
Running the news desk
Johnson heads the news desk that includes six other communicators, some of them based at Advocate’s individual hospitals. Now that the site has launched, the system’s other communicators also are contributing stories.
The writers cover a full range of issues that appear under a drop-down tab titled “Health Topics.” These include bone and joint, brain and neuro, and cancer care, along with areas specific to seniors, women, and men. Health enews also features blogs by doctors, nurses and other staff.
The new approach required Advocate communicators to abandon the rigidly written, institutionalized voice of most press releases, with stiff quotes that journalists can’t use. “They’re good writers,” says Ylisela, who trained the staff and edited most of the pre-launch stories on the site. “They just needed the chance to write good stories.”
One piece, headlined, “Young hearts no longer run free,” leads with a 32-year-old patient who suffered a heart attack, warning that it’s not just a disease that strikes the elderly.
Writers occasionally turn in first-person pieces. One staffer described getting acupuncture to treat her migraines, while another wrote about “my fun with shingles.” “When ‘vaccinated’ isn’t enough: A whooping cough story” describes a daughter’s frightening encounter with the disease.
Tip stories and videos
The site is also rich with tip stories, such as five diet changes that help prevent cancer. There are quick pieces that report health-related developments, among them one headlined, “Parents can weigh in on new USDA snack guidelines.”
Building on Johnson’s experience, Advocate has long produced videos. The site offers footage on topics such as sudden cardiac death among young athletes and how to stretch and warm up for snow shoveling. There’s even one on “laughing yoga.” Videos are important for demonstrating the visuals of stories pitched to TV journalists, Johnson says.
Videos and slideshows, along with profiles of Advocate employees, give consumers a look inside health care, Ylisela says. Future videos will look at a day in the life of what’s happening at Advocate, featuring doctors, staff and patients.
One promising video will look at what doctors listen to in the operating room, around the theme, “what music are you being healed to?”
“We have some doctors who listen to Chopin and some that listen to pop music while they’re performing surgery in the OR,” Johnson says.
Advocate adds at least five new stories to the site daily and distributes them through an email newsletter that goes to reporters and others who sign up.
“In the morning, when reporters are planning out the news of the day, we hope to catch their eye first with an interesting angle or story or point of view on today’s news,” Johnson says.
While completing their regular public affairs duties, the staff has to produce fresh content, both original stories and summaries of reports and content from elsewhere, including new studies and medical breakthroughs.
Still, Johnson believes the site won’t just be a time-suck for communicators. Stories they write for the site count toward the total number of press releases they are required to write each month. If all goes well, health enews will spark more coverage, which means less fruitless pitching stories reporters aren’t interested in.
The stories make use of feature-story narrative techniques that are spreading among communicators. Ylisela says the organizational world is catching up with the news media.
“We’ve been teaching the importance of good storytelling for years,” he says. “‘Find humans; don’t have a bunch of stiff quotes from the suits. Don’t tell me, show me.’ All of the old adages that apply to any kind of journalistic writing now seem to have finally caught on.”
This helps PR pros cut through the noise of a wired and distracted world, Ylisela says. And the site’s social media channels allow readers to share, like and tweet the stories, as well as comment on the health topics—which can generate new content and discussion.
It didn’t take long for word of the site to spread. “We did a soft launch to 77 people internally, as a test,” Johnson says. “By the next week that grew to more than 2,000 people-and we hadn’t even done any marketing yet.”
With those kinds of numbers, the hard work is just beginning. “Once you launch a site like this,” Ylisela says, “the beast must constantly be fed.”