Getting major media placements in outlets such as “NBC Nightly News” and The Huffington Post is every PR and media relations professional’s dream—and if you can get 1 million or so people to visit your brand’s website in response to the coverage, that’s icing on the cake.
This year, The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center pulled off this feat using a brand journalism approach. Here’s how it attracted so much public attention to the news so quickly:
Keeping eyes open for good storytelling opportunities
Bob Mackle, director of media relations for The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, and his colleagues discuss potential story ideas in weekly meetings, as well as during weekly calls with MediaSource, the medical center’s brand journalism partner.
The best ideas, Mackle explains, help the medical center highlight its expertise and culture while also telling a story—and therefore merit a full-court press effort, including the development of video and audio elements, interviews with patients and physicians, and aggressive pitching efforts.
The medical center’s physicians also let the media relations team know about their research, which is how Mackle learned about the SAGE test (Self-Administered Gerocognitive Exam). The test, developed by Dr. Douglas Scharre, director of the Division of Cognitive Neurology at Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center, can be taken by people on their own and then brought to their doctors to identify signs of cognitive impairments such as Alzheimer’s disease. An article about the test and its development was scheduled to appear in The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences.
“This was the first time we’d seen a take-home test of this nature, and we knew we could make the test available for download,” Mackle explains. “It’s also based on a very hot topic, what with the aging population—and for younger people as well, who might be interested in testing themselves or asking their parents to get tested. We thought it had good potential for national TV news coverage.”
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A human angle helps ensure success
Working with MediaSource, Mackle and his colleagues created a multimedia release about the SAGE test and how it could help identify the onset of cognitive problems.
“We also prepared extra b-roll, a press release, and photographs-anything a print, TV or online reporter would need to put the story together,” Mackle explains. These materials included interviews with Emily Shorenstein, a retired nurse who volunteers for research involving Alzheimer’s, including Scharre’s development of the SAGE test.
Interviews with patients or study participants go a long way toward convincing media outlets of a story’s value, says Lisa Arledge Powell, president of MediaSource.
“You need that human angle to tell the story,” she says. “If you focus solely on researchers or doctors, you’re not helping the media understand how the story will affect their audience.”
Mackle and his colleagues also worked to push the story out via social media, creating a special Web page where people could learn more about the SAGE test and download it; they also created tweets and Facebook posts urging people to download the test.
Coverage on ‘NBC Nightly News’ and Huffington Post
About a week before the medical journal article appeared and the embargo was lifted, Mackle and his team started pitching. “We put a strong emphasis on digital news sources,” Mackle says. “We push the news to online news sites, because they give us links that we can share on social networks.”
“NBC Nightly News” expressed interest in the story right away. The show’s medical editor, Dr. Nancy Snyderman, used interviews with Shorenstein, the woman in Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center’s b-roll package, as well as the test’s creator, Dr. Scharre. The story also appeared on NBCNews.com. On the same day, The Huffington Post ran its own story about the SAGE test.
Reaction from news consumers was swift: “The Web page with the download link for the test got about 100,000 visitors in the first three hours, then about 1 million as the days went by,” Mackle says. “We never had that kind of demand before—we had the page configured to handle a much smaller traffic load.”
Interest in the test was so great that eager downloaders actually crashed the SAGE test Web page—but it was back up after a few hours of retooling by the medical center’s IT team. “We had a huge surge again that weekend, and eventually the test was downloaded 1 million times,” Mackle says.
That, according to Arledge Powell, makes the campaign one of the most successful brand journalism initiatives to date in the health care industry.
“We are not aware of any brand journalism campaign that has driven a target audience of 1 million to do anything—go to a website, call a number, or buy a pharma product,” she says.
News with wide appeal and simple storylines are best for brand journalism
Aside from the human elements that helped sell this story—that is, the interview with the volunteer, as well as the doctor who developed the test—the SAGE test had other elements that made it a brand-journalism winner, says MediaSource’s Arledge Powell.
“A topic like detecting Alzheimer’s disease appeals to a wide audience,” she says. “Also, having a call to action, like downloading a test, helps heighten people’s interest.”
The simplicity of the SAGE test story was also an advantage. “Our most successful health care stories are easy to explain,” Arledge Powell says. “In this case, people had a problem—figuring out if they had cognitive issues—and Dr. Scharre solved the problem. The fewer steps involved in a story, the easier it is to understand.”
Of course, the SAGE test story also achieved the primary goal of every brand journalism story: shining a spotlight on the work being done at Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center.
“This story helped establish Dr. Scharre as a leader in the field of cognitive issues,” Mackle says. “Now when journalists are doing stories about Alzheimer’s, they come to us and ask for him.”
On a broader level, Mackle says, brand journalism stories highlight the knowledge of the entire medical center community.
“The SAGE test story exposed the medial center to so many people who may never have heard of us—and since we received plenty of local coverage as well, it helps generate patient volume,” Mackle explains. “We help people, and at the same time, build a national reputation for our work.”
This is the first article in a three-part content series on brand journalism. This series, in partnership with MediaSource, a media relations and content production firm that specializes in brand journalism tactics, offers tips to communications professionals.