What if one of your EMS crews were involved in a serious vehicle accident? How many news cycles and media outlets would you expect to cover it?
How do you establish your brand as the mobile health and prehospital leader and subject matter expert in your region? Does the community generally have a positive impression of your organization?
What if your main competitor shared untrue information about your organization with local elected officials? Would you easily get the chance to set the record straight with them?
These questions underscore the importance of a multipronged, foundational approach to a strong external public relations program. They include media relations, community relations, content creation and public affairs.
Tell Me Again, What’s “Public Relations”?
If you’re a public relations practitioner and you’ve ever had to explain you job, you’ve probably searched for the easiest way to define it. I usually like to say, “A public relations practitioner is tasked with promoting and protecting the brand and reputation of the organization, usually through sharing information and stories about what that company does.”
In 1982, the Public Relations Society of America’s (PRSA’s) National Assembly adopted the following definition, “Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other.” They further explain by saying, “At its core, public relations is about influencing, engaging and building a relationship with key stakeholders across a myriad of platforms in order to shape and frame the public perception of an organization.”
Often, this is successfully accomplished through compelling storytelling, establishing your organization as the area’s subject matter expert and navigating issues and crises with honest, timely information.
Who Are the “Publics” in Public Relations?
Audience segmentation can be narrowed for specific plans and objectives–like getting employees to sign up for health benefits or getting requesting agencies to call your resources first. However, launching a public relations plan related to generating awareness about, and building affinity for your company can be done from high-level audience groupings, including employees, boards of directors, elected officials, traditional media outlets, patients, healthcare partners, contracted providers, friends of the organization and social media influencers.
In our industry, there can be–and often is–an overlap between audiences. For example, a member of your board of directors can also become a patient; an employee may also be a social media influencer. Being aware of these audiences and what they need and expect from your organization should be the starting point for all communications-related tactics.
For the purposes of this article though, we’ll focus primarily on audiences related to media and community relations.
Relationships, Transparency and Strategy
Early in my career, I had a boss who told me, “Instead of public relations, it should be called “˜public relationships.'” I think about this often because he couldn’t have been more right. All of the scenarios mentioned at the start of this article have the highest potential for good outcomes if you have solid relationships in place.
Consider how you build a friendship: It takes commitment, regularity, honesty and thoughtfulness. Incorporating these elements into your media and community relations efforts will yield meaningful, trusted and rewarding professional relationships.
First, connect with your audiences regularly. Examples of this can include visits to traditional media outlets to meet with assignment editors or reporters, lunch dates with elected officials and support for healthcare partner events and announcements. It’s important to note that although these connection points are strategic, they’re not necessarily centered around media pitches, policy discussions or project collaborations.
Although some of that may grow out of these get togethers, it’s about smaller things like making sure the newsroom has the right 24/7 contact information or ensuring the EMS presence in a city council representative’s neighborhood is adequate. Create a calendar for these visits and meetings and follow up on things that get discussed.
Next, build trust by being prepared to address the tough stuff if it comes up–It will come up! In this age of citizen reporters, cameras in the palm of everyone’s hand, likes, shares, retweets and hashtags; transparency, timeliness and accountability are more important than ever.
You know the standard to which people hold your organization. So first, advocate within your company for ethical practices and decisions. Since you’ve done the right thing, now tell the truth about it. Speak proactively about it if you can. Even if a crisis occurs or your organization is at fault, take responsibility and own the message. Prioritize the key audiences mentioned above and share timely information consistently and as frequently as possible.
Finally, have a strategy; have a plan. A plan can be a fancy, multifaceted, integrated marketing/communications/business development plan or it can be a tried-and-true, four-step PR plan. It can be an editorial calendar or a crisis plan. You probably have some version of all of these. That’s great! They address audiences, research, budgets, deliverable dates, objectives, person responsible and evaluation.
Working strategically brings focus, direction, ownership and results to how you spend your days. Public relations can be an interrupt-driven business, if we let it. Sure, opportunities and setbacks will come up, but in the time in between, you should be able to regularly quantify and demonstrate the importance and accomplishments of a public relations person (or ideally, a department!). Remember, sometimes your best work never shows up in the media.
The Top 10 Tips to Tune Up Your PR Program
One of my favorite things about visiting with public relations colleagues at professional events is the chance to exchange ideas, share successes and ask questions. I’d like to share some of my favorite tips and ideas here. Some of these may be new to you, but others can always be repeated.
1. Visit your traditional media outlets (e.g., television news, local or regional newspapers, talk radio and digital news outlets). Make an appointment for 15 minutes (30 max) with an assignment editor, news director or the health beat reporter. Make sure they know who is your agency’s primary media contact and that they have updated 24/7 contact information. You aren’t necessarily pitching stories during these meetings, but you should be prepared to share facts and information about your programs and operations, as well as be able to talk about things like what’s new with your agency and how you and the media can work together.
2. Spend time building your public relations network of colleagues. Attend regional presentations on disaster preparedness. Or better yet, host one! Find the PRSA chapter in your area, join and actively attend the programming events. Talk to public information officers with law enforcement, fire departments and hospitals. Then, expand your connections to include trusted PR professionals from sectors including public transportation, local municipalities, retail centers, power companies, manufacturing facilities, school districts, higher education facilities, public relations agencies and banking. These connections are great for everything from disaster support to messaging gutchecks.
3. Refresh (or develop) an employee media relations policy. Make sure everyone in your organization understands who is and is not authorized to speak to the media.
4. Whenever possible, accommodate media requests. This is true for major hard news stories related specifically to your company all the way to a seasonal or localized soft news wellness story. If you really can’t accommodate it or are truly not the right subject matter expert, be helpful to the media by making an appropriate recommendation to an alternate source.
5. Be prepared to supply assets to news agencies. It’s often worth the investment to have on hand high-resolution headshots of executives, a selection of professional pictures of your fleet and programs and some video footage of your vehicles and personnel in action.
6. Recruit, train and showcase internal subject matter experts (e.g., a financial expert, a clinical expert, a group of executives and a selection of field providers). This is a useful tool in many regards–from highlighting the meaningful work of field providers to matching the right leader to the right level of accountability to answering clinically precise questions–these subject matter experts give credibility to your agency. They should know how to speak in soundbites, what to expect from a recorded and a live interview and general rules of engagement with the media. Which brings me to my next tip “¦
7. Nothing is ever off the record. If you don’t want to see it on the front page of tomorrow’s newspaper, don’t say it to a reporter. Proceed with caution when speaking on background. Assume the mic is always hot.
8. Encourage members of the leadership team to identify and actively participate in local, regional and/or national groups, associations and boards. Perhaps they have a passion around a particular healthcare issue, or they’re interested in advancing their professional skills or they want to expand their professional network. Board, association and committee work is an excellent way to foster employee engagement, community support and professional connections.
9. Go digital. The digital space can feel overwhelming and the temptation to just stay off of it all together is strong. Resist that. Jump in! Consider which platforms will work best for your organization (probably, for example, LinkedIn rather than Snapchat) and just get started–after you develop a social media employee policy. Friend, like, follow, share and comment on content posted by your municipalities, healthcare partners, other prehospital agencies and regional co-responders. The audiences mentioned in the beginning of this article are using digital media, so if you want to communicate with them, your organization should use it too.
10. Generate your own digital content. Now that you have digital profiles, start planning and posting your own content. A plan can be as simple as a spreadsheet with content ideas for a couple days a week. Think of this as another way to maintain frequency and build connection points with your audiences. Creating content allows you to completely control the message and reinforce your brand. Content options are endless. Some examples include sharing the link to a local news story that featured your organization, highlighting your crews (especially with protected health information-compliant thank you notes from co-responding agencies or patients), using your smartphone and a wireless mic to record an employee sharing wellness tips (e.g., handwashing, summer heat safety tips or infant safe sleep information) and localizing health-recognition events (e.g., Stroke Month, International Eat an Apple Day, etc).
The AIMHI article series is developed in partnership with JEMS to help educate EMS agencies on the hallmarks and attributes of high-performance/high-value EMS system design and operations.
To learn more about AIMHI visit www.aimhi.mobi.
Read the first article in the series: Clinical Performance Measures that Matter