How to Get a Patient to Talk: Lessons in Health Care PR

By Aaron Cohen, President, Aaron Cohen PR LLC

“Norma Smith was diagnosed with stage-three cancer in December.” – Fresno Bee

Photo credit: John Walker and The Fresno Bee

An anecdotal lede like that is rhetorical device meant to grab a reader by the lapels and demand they keep reading. According to Carmen George of the Fresno Bee, Norma is important because she can “connect people’s compelling personal stories to larger issues.”

To me, as a media relations consultant, people like Norma are the difference between press release pickups and agenda-setting coverage. Earning coverage like this requires sensitivity, patience, and skill.

Getting Norma’s story published is how a journalist explains the life-changing decisions of policymakers and businesses.

It’s the same drill when a Des Moines Register looks at how an Iowa corn farmer’s market is affected by trade policy decisions or how a head shop owner in Massachusetts is impacted by a new e-cigarette crackdown.

“The real challenge in writing a policy story is getting people to read it. If I can focus a story on a real human being who’s been impacted by the policy in question, it automatically becomes more engaging and meaningful — and dramatically more impactful, too,” says Lev Facher, reporter for Stat News, which covers the life sciences industry.

To reporters like Facher, real people resources are the Holy Grail of journalism for three reasons:

  • Real people humanize dry government or academic data, and are great at, “engaging readers on an emotional, intimate level to help them care more about what they are reading,” said George.
  • They provide an important layer of credibility to a story that might have just an antagonist and a protagonist.
  • They demonstrate a cause and effect relationship.

A dramatic example is Sheri Fink’s moving New York Times Magazine, post-Hurricane Harvey cover story about Casey Dills-Dailey. Casey was sent home from the hospital without medicine crucial to her health. When Harvey struck, her health deteriorated. She later died.

Casey’s widower Wayne, and his two sons, allowed Fink “to accompany them through the difficult days after Casey’s death in the hopes that telling her story might help others,” according to a Times Insider account of how the magazine story was reported.

Altruism like Wayne’s, is often what leads medical patients sign health privacy forms and allow journalists into their homes at the most vulnerable and sensitive times of their lives.

Fink told me she discovered Wayne and Casey without the help of a publicist, but stories like that and Norma’s are there, if you know how and where to look. To Terry DeMio, a Pulitzer Prize winning Cincinnati Enquirer reporter, it’s essential to good storytelling. “People are indispensable in a good narrative,” she said.

Here are a few steps to creating a narrative towards getting that groundbreaking placement:

  • Understand how a policy, a report, a piece of state or federal legislation will impact individuals in a negative way, and focus on the negative – happy news doesn’t usually sell papers!
  • Identify an individual, or individuals effected by a bill or a natural disaster, etc.
  • If a medical patient is involved, get the provider to have privacy waiver forms signed to stay legal.
  • Interview the person and make them comfortable with the alien process of an encounter with a journalist.
  • Don’t overly message-train a real person. They’re supposed to sound real, remember?
  • Act as the person’s agent and appointment secretary, like they were your client and protect the patient’s time and health.
  • Do follow-up work with a reporter and treat them like they were your client or boss.

There was no way the Fresno Bee or any daily newspaper in the United States was going to report on the arcane practices of the health care system’s middlemen, known as pharmacy benefit managers (PBM) without a Norma Smith. It’s too dry and, to many readers, just plain boring.

For the Community Oncology Alliance, we tapped into a Fresno oncology practice and found Norma, a plain-speaking, stage three blood cancer patient who felt shafted by a PBM.

Carmen George liked the story, interviewed Norma about how a PBM delayed the cancer medicine her oncologist had prescribed, and published a blockbuster that was a sensation on the internet, stirred a reaction from the Fresno congressman and an explanation from the PBM in question.

Norma wasn’t quoted for her knowledge of Prior Authorizations or Direct and Indirect Remuneration Fees. Washington Post health care reporter Lenny Bernstein says, “stories profit from quotes from the people who are going through these situations, whether they are mental illness, a hurricane, war, or an election.”

Here’s why Carmen George’s story in the Fresno Bee profited from Norma’s central role. Norma said, “I’m a human being. I’m not a used car. I have feelings. I’m a person. I want to live. I want to spend time with my grandchildren. I want to quilt. I want to do things. I want to live.”

About the Author

Aaron Cohen has owned and operated Aaron Cohen PR since 2014, and has been a health care PR specialist for a decade. In addition to media relations, messaging and media training services for clients, Aaron offers a training course to teach organizations how to start new, or improve existing, earned media programs. Aaron has been in communications for more than three decades, having worked in a succession of PR firms and as a Washington- based radio journalist. For more, visit

Experts Needed – That’s You!

This blog is a forum for members of the National Capital Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America and other public relations professionals. Your expertise is a welcome addition to this community.

Please consider writing a post. This is a great way to give to the profession and the professional society that has helped us all as PR professionals.

We welcome blog submissions from members and other contributors who are interested in providing content that can be useful for public relations practitioners. Below are blog submission guidelines.

Helpful Blogging Tips and Best Practices

  • Length should be between 500-800 words
  • Submission should include subheads and paragraph breaks (if appropriate) to avoid the appearance of a “wall” of text
  • Author should use a conversational tone and show personality in writing
  • Post should include links to the chapter website and other websites if appropriate
  • Author should submit images when possible along with caption and permission information
  • Mentions of a company/website within a post and/or in the author byline are allowed, but posts cannot overtly promote a product or business (only sponsor organizations are promoted to members)
  • While the posts are the opinion of the author, submissions that demean individuals, companies, professions or businesses will not be accepted. The purpose of the blog is both to advance the profession and provoke intelligent discussion among peers.

NCC Blog Submission Process

  • Send a Word document and images to jill [at]
  • Word document should include:
    • Byline with author name and title
    • Post title and content
    • Links, if applicable
  • Image should be accompanied by caption and permission information
  • The post will be scheduled and the author notified upon publication

This is a great way to get more exposure for your ideas and expertise. All blog posts are included on the PRSA-NCC home page and also shared on PRSA-NCC chapter social media channels.

4 Tips for Planning Your Next Networking Happy Hour

By Allie Erenbaum, Board Member and Co-chair of the University Relations Committee for PRSA-NCC

Who do I talk to first? What questions should I ask? How can I hold a drink and a plate of food, and successfully shake someone’s hand?

If you’ve ever asked yourself one of the above questions, you are not alone. Although networking happy hours can be intimidating, they also present informal ways to grow your professional network. From learning about new areas of your profession to practicing your elevator pitch, attending a networking happy hour offers several benefits.

On August 14, PRSA-NCC hosted an August Summer Happy Hour. In addition to bringing together current chapter members, the event attracted recent graduates, young professionals, new members, and new arrivals to the Washington, D.C. area. The event ended up being one of the most successful networking happy hours in PRSA-NCC’s recent history, with 83 people attending.

Consider these tips when planning your organization’s next networking happy hour:

  • Bring stakeholders together early. For the August Summer Happy Hour, PRSA-NCC collaborated across committees (e.g., Membership, Marketing and Communications, University Relations, and New Professionals) to ensure far-reaching attendance. Each committee helped facilitate individual outreach to people in their network, which resulted in close to 100 registrations. Getting leadership buy-in and amplification of your networking happy hour will also help generate interest.
  • Consider the event’s timing. If one of your organization’s competitors or stakeholders is willing to share their events calendar, it may be useful to sync on efforts to ensure you can attract the widest group of people. If your organization produces events on a regular basis, make sure you are not competing with other initiatives on your own calendar.
  • Pricing and location can make or break interest. Professionals already go to several happy hours on their own time with their colleagues or clients. To make your organization’s networking happy hour accessible, keep your price point low and consider engaging, centrally-located venues in your area.
  • Remember your audience. Since the August Summer Happy Hour wanted to encourage individuals that may not be familiar with PRSA-NCC’s structure, PRSA-NCC made sure brochures and fact sheets were available for attendees. PRSA-NCC also encouraged chapter leadership and committee co-chairs to attend, ensuring that questions could be answered in real-time.

 About the Author

Allie Erenbaum is a one-year Board of Director and Co-chair of the University Relations Committee for PRSA-NCC. Through the University Relations Committee, Allie collaborates with leaders from universities across the Washington, D.C. area to connect students with industry professionals to create job, internship, mentoring, and networking opportunities. She is currently a Senior Consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton specializing in strategic communications and public affairs. While working towards her degree in Public Relations and Strategic Communication at American University, Allie completed internships at Porter Novelli, APCO Worldwide, and Participant Media.

How to Plan Your Next Video

By Pete Cousté, PC MediaWorks and Chair, PRSA-NCC Independent PR Alliance Committee

I covered more than my share of National Press Club events as a broadcast journalist and TV producer early in my career at CNN, WUSA-TV9, and others.  However, I had never appeared on a panel to present to a few hundred PR colleagues until recently at the 2019 PR Summit DC.

For the first time, I was invited to speak on a panel underneath that NPC sign. It was called Ready, Fire, Aim: How (Not) To Plan Your Next Video. Not surprisingly, the topic of video in PR was either the main focus or a big part of the discussion in at least three sessions in the daylong conference.  

It was a new perspective for me. After my 25-plus years of work in broadcast TV news, PR, marketing, and digital video in DC, there was a lot to talk about.

I was fortunate to be teamed with other accomplished creatives to offer others insight across the agency, client and production perspectives.  They included moderator Glenn Greenstein, the creative director and founder of Mean Green Media; Mimi Carter, the US General Manager & SVP of Proof Strategies and a longtime local PR and marketing agency veteran; and Thorsten Ruehlemann, Chief Marketing Officer of Service Year Alliance and former Worldwide Managing Partner at Ogilvy & Mather.

Our goal was to help other PR pros like yourself get better results from the process of planning, managing and implementing video projects.  We met, collaborated and trade ideas for a couple of weeks to come up with our top ten list of best practices and tips to share.

Be Transparent

A good partner shares information openly with the team. We as clients must define the boundaries of a project. Provide your team with the freedom of a tight creative brief. Put it in writing. Articulate client goals clearly.

Be transparent about your expectations. Explain the business objective of your video. Share reference material/benchmarks (creative examples you like or do not like). Make budgets and internal deadlines transparent (e.g. board needs to approve concept in their meeting on this date).

Achieve Stakeholder Alignment Early

Ensure that purpose, scope and objectives are clear to all stakeholders before production begins. Video is a team collaboration requiring time and resources. Verify that SMEs, approvers, and key decision makers are committed and know when they’re needed and carve out time to participate.

Assign a single point-person to collect and control feedback-approval loop. Educate reviewers on what feedback you need from them. Keep them in their lanes. Avoid committee groupthink. Get individual feedback submitted in writing.

Make Video Part of Your Integrated PR or Marketing Plan

Think integrated video strategy upfront. Use your same APR PR process stages with video (Research, Plan, Implement, Evaluate). Think in categories of earned, owned, and paid media. Include the creative lead of the video team at strategy table early to help consider how to integrate video across your campaign’s tactics, platforms, and audiences.

Save money through economies of scale by planning and producing videos with overlapping content, shared assets, resources, and for multiple uses at the same time. Save time and money by re-purposing and re-versioning content across channels. Grow a video asset library.

Learn More

For the entire list, feel free to email me and I’ll send it to you, pete [at]

It was both a humbling and inspiring experience to try to give back a little of what I’ve learned that works best. I recommend it to all of you. Once you have logged enough time and feel you have something valuable that others want to hear, it helps to share it.

As an active member of PRSA, I felt as I spoke that I was in part representing fellow NCC members. It helped to see many familiar faces from our chapter in the audience as I spoke.  Thank you. You know who you are.

Easy as Pi: How Comms Pros Can use Numbers to Shape Social Strategy

By Kevin Coroneos, Digital Director, Aerospace Industries Association

When it comes to communication professionals, there’s one thing that usually unites us: a hatred of math.

But for a digital strategist, numbers – specifically social media metrics – should be your best friend, especially if you have a wide-ranging audience.

With the growing divide between generations on social media platforms, relying on audience and post analytics can help shape a cross-generational digital strategy that can grow your engagement and your community.

In running communications for the world’s largest student rocket contest, I get to speak directly to some of the brightest young minds in the country. But these students aren’t launching rockets on their own. They have teachers and a network of mentors and aerospace professionals guiding them along the way!

With this full network of participants and supervisors comes a generation gap. We have adults who want the facts, and students who worship Fortnite and think storming Area 51 is hilarious.

Luckily, that’s where the numbers come in.

Audience analytics on each platform are wonderful for figuring out who you’re actually talking to. There are, of course, several fancier tools to analyze your audience, but if you’re a smaller organization with limited budget, you can get pretty scrappy with the back-end analytics.

At our organization, by looking at the ages, genders and locations of our audiences, and matching them up with the locations of our participating teams, we were able to gain a very strong idea of the individuals on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

To confirm our beliefs, we also analyzed key metrics, including total engagement and engagement rates (the number of engagements divided by the number of impressions). With that information, we were able to build audience profiles to match to each platform.

On Instagram, we found that our audience was current participants – both their personal and team accounts – and young alumni.

On Twitter, we found our most diverse audience: a mix of media, politicians, teams, sponsoring companies, teachers and more.

And on Facebook, we lacked our current participants, but we had the adults and family members involved in the program – an important outlet for communicating with the students.

So basically, we’re talking to a lot of different people in a lot of different places – and our digital strategy must reflect that.

For example, our data showed that content around participants in action had a much higher engagement rate on Instagram than other platforms. We knew that in order to engage students, we needed to give them the content that they cared about. But with a nationwide contest, we can’t get in every classroom.

But we can put the content in the hands of the students so they’re communicating to one another. Using these analytics and information, we did two things.

First, we ran weekly photo contests as a way to get our audience to post on their own accounts more often, as well as provide us with more content.

Second, we began executing Instagram takeovers – letting our audience decide their own content. Not only did we see increased engagement across Instagram, but also we grew our audience because the students wanted to show off to their friends.

By looking at the top-performing content on the platform, we were able to build a strategy to give our audience the content they wanted, increasing our engagement and our audience over time.

But that’s not all we were able to gain from our analytics.

By exploring the metrics and audience breakdowns, we also determined HOW to talk to each unique group. You wouldn’t necessarily talk to a 15-year-old the same way you’d talk to a 50-year-old, so why would you do the same on social media?

On Facebook, we saw our posts were highly engaged with when our tone was more informative, resourceful or supportive. When it featured a more playful voice, we saw much less engagement. This helped us develop the appropriate voice to effectively communicate with our audience and provide them with information, as well as develop a legitimate, supportive community in which there was information sharing and well wishes.

Since our audience features older mentors and teachers, we also learned that posts that featured a call-to-action directed at “your students” or “your rocketeers” outperformed general calls to action.

But on Instagram, if we were a bit sarcastic or humorous – we saw more likes, more comments and more direct messages. This, of course, makes the role more fun, but requires me to try to be hip and stay up-to-date on the meme culture…

By developing an audience-centric strategy and building our voice and tone based on data analytics, we saw our engagement on each platform grow organically. We also built an overall stronger community because of it. All it took was for communicators to finally accept math as a part of life.

Kevin Coroneos is the Digital Director for the Aerospace Industries Association and Communications Director for The American Rocketry Challenge.

3 Low-Cost PR Strategies for Small Businesses

By Grayson Kemper, Senior Content Developer for Clutch

Small businesses often struggle to find low-cost solutions to create awareness and promote their brands to the public.

There are, however, many public relations strategies that your small business can implement to create discussion and awareness about your company.

In this article, we share three public relations strategies that can help build your brand’s reach, awareness, and reputation without overextending your budget:

  1. Online reputation management (ORM)
  2. SEO
  3. Community building and engagement

1. Online Reputation Management

Businesses that monitor their online reputation can effectively gauge public perception about their company and find opportunities to meaningfully engage with customers about their feedback and challenges.

While online reputation management agencies can provide a full suite of service for both proactive and reactive online reputation management, the cost may be too hefty for some small businesses.

Some ORM strategies, though, can be done in-house, with the proper care and attention. Two in particular are encouraging online reviews and social media monitoring.

Reviews provide opportunities for brands to build a meaningful connection with consumers. Responding to both negative and positive reviews is essential to building brand authority.

Encouraging customers to leave reviews can create benefits for your small business, regardless of whether the review is positive or negative.

  • Brands that respond to negative reviews by helping to correct a problem prove their dedication to customer satisfaction.
  • Brands that thank people for positive reviews show the public they’re engaged with customers and that they appreciate feedback.

A recent survey by The Manifest found that over half of small businesses respond publicly to negative reviews, while nearly half respond privately.

Companies  that respond to reviews and comments are able to build awareness and strengthen their brand reputation.

For example, when a Zappos customer posted a shipping complaint on the company’s Facebook page, the company responded with an offer to help resolve the issue.

Source: Facebook

In another thread, a customer wrote to praise a customer service representative at Zappos, and the company responded immediately by thanking the commentator for his feedback.

Source: Facebook

Social listening also is an essential part of online reputation management. Specifically, it helps companies understand what people are saying about them online and gives them broader insight about general perceptions about their company

There are a variety of free social listening tools that your small business can use to track social conversation about your company and respond quickly.

2. Organic SEO

Optimizing your website for search engines can help to get your brand and its products in front of new people daily.

Over 60% of people click on the top 5 results of a search engine results page. If you are able to earn placement in a prime spot, you create an opportunity to earn the attention and potential patronage of search audiences for keywords related to your business.

People also increasingly rely on Google results to find local businesses – i.e., “laundromats near me.” Investing in local SEO allows small businesses to establish a presence for local searches that can help attract and retain key local audiences.

Though SEO has a time cost associated with its implementation and maintenance, small businesses can benefit greatly from a strong SEO strategy.

Include some of your best reviews on the welcome page of your website, to encourage Google to feature these positive reviews.

3. Community Engagement

Rather than simply treating social media as a method to communicate to the public, you should strive to create a community through your company’s social media.

To do this, focus on sharing content that is highly relevant to your followers interest. This sort of content on social media creates opportunities to truly engage with your followers.

According to The Manifest survey, 56% of businesses do not engage with  their audiences through social media. This creates an opportunity for your business to gain a competitive edge by building an active social media audience.

For example, SEO expert Rand Fishkin recently founded SparkToro and has used social media to create discussion and engagement to grow brand awareness.

Source: Rand Fishkin on Instagram

Starbucks, for example, shares a mix of entertaining content, including inspirational quotes. Recently, it shared a quote that garnered over 800 comments.

Posting engaging content on helps customers better understand your company, and by extension, creates appeal for your products.

Small Businesses Can Engage Customers Using Inexpensive PR Strategies

Small businesses can create visibility and appeal through low-cost public relations campaigns such as online reputation management, organic SEO, and community engagement.

About the Author

Grayson Kemper is a senior content developer for Clutch, the leading research, ratings, and reviews platform for B2B services and solutions providers. Clutch serves as a resource for businesses searching for top PR firms, app developers, and other marketing and technology services.

Speaking & Presenting with “Presents”

By Susan Matthews Apgood, President & CEO, News Generation, Inc.

On Friday, June 21, PRSA-NCC held a workshop at Oglivy in Washington, D.C. named “How to Present to Senior Executives and Clients.” It was presented by Sarah Gershman from Greenroom Speakers.

Sarah outlined that there are three kinds of presence: 1. Presence of Self, 2. Presence of Message, and 3. Presence of Delivery. She explained that when you address an audience, you need to break down a wall. How do we do this? First, we have to create a shift in the way we prepare for a presentation. Instead of starting with the topic, start with the audience.

For each presentation you give, you have to look at what the audience’s needs are. Needs come in two forms: spoken and unspoken. Many prepare to present with a focus on all of the knowledge they have as a presenter. Instead, shift that focus to what the audience needs to know. What do they need to get out of the information you are presenting?

As you prepare to present, outline three items: 1. What do you want the audience to know? 2. How do you want them to feel? and 3. What do you want them to do after listening to your presentation? From this, you have to break through and become part of the audience’s story to get them to engage and listen to your story.

Many people HATE to speak in front of any audience, large or small. Gershman’s take on that? People are not worried about the presenter. They are thinking about themselves. What do to they have to this afternoon? What about dinner tonight?

Ninety-three percent of content delivered comes from voice and body language. With only seven percent coming from words. That does not mean that words are not important, of course they are. We just have to make sure that what we are delivering to the audience matches the tone of what we are saying. People typically don’t remember the words you said, they remember how you make them feel.

Ears will lose focus if the speaker is presenting in a monotone voice. How do we create contrast as a presenter? You can talk louder and then softer, you can change the tempo in your delivery, you can update the pitch of your voice, and you can change your tone, presenting more practically and then mixing in with emotional tones.

In terms of body-language, there are three ways to keep the audience engaged. First, by movement. For example, lean into the audience when a question is being asked, and then step back to address the entire audience when answering the question. Second, by visuals. Make sure that your Power Point is not too busy where you are making the audience work for what you are presenting. Too much text on a slide will make the audience focus on two things: you and the slide deck. Keep it simple. Third, eye contact. Instead of looking at a presentation as addressing 50 or 100 people, look at it as having several short conversations in a row. One person at a time.

Sarah closed her presentation by outlining the difference between charisma and presence. Charisma is when people are drawn to a person because of their natural attributes. But presence is when the speaker is drawn into the audience. Sara concluded with the idea of always having gratitude towards the audience, and making sure you provide them with the gift of your presence or providing “presents.”

If you would like to connect with Sarah and have her come to your team and present, you can email her at or visit her website at