Posted By Sunrise Health Communications on 04/03/2019

Don't *tell* journalists what the story is -- help them find it

Don't *tell* journalists what the story is -- help them find it

The headline on this MedCity News article did what a headline is supposed to do, at a minimum — it caught my attention — and then it went a step further, because it intrigued me: “Judy Faulkner asked the press to dig into physician burnout and EHR satisfaction. So we did.” Besides being an interesting read — I’m always up for a well-written story that dives into whether received wisdom is actually, you know, true — it’s worth the time for a healthcare communications strategist to read the article and the interview that spawned it to consider how Epic System Corporation’s founder and CEO might have handled this a little better.

Faulkner’s comment that launched this story was not a one-off, throw-away line. It’s clear from this Q&A Faulkner did from HIMSS that she was waiting to spring this concept when asked about the connection between physician burnout and dissatisfaction with EHRs. 

As an interview tactic, and a method of advancing an idea, it can be a solid one. As a journalist, I wanted to hear from industry insiders about stories they felt weren’t being covered or new angles that would freshen up an oft-covered story.

To make this tactic work for you, here are three don’ts and three do’s for leveraging under-covered stories and angles as part of your media relations strategy:

Don’t make it a broadside against journalists: Human beings are naturally tribal. Moreover, journalism draws a lot of “Oh, yeah? Bet I can prove you wrong!” types (I was that type in my 20s and 30s when I was a reporter). You aren’t going to influence journalists if you suggest they aren’t doing their jobs or attack them as a group.

Do cultivate a few journalists, one on one: For a journalist to have incentive to look into the ignored story or angle, she has to think there’s a chance she will be the first or nearly the first to write about the story or angle. Bring it up when you are just having a conversation with a journalist, not during a Q&A. Give the reporter the incentive to devote time and internal capital to the story.

Don’t jump too quickly to the conclusion that suits your interests: Faulkner’s bit about this — in the Q&A linked above and another one she did during HIMSS — cites a solid survey from a respected third-party vendor (KLAS), but it is just one survey, albeit a large one with nearly 7,000 respondents. And while there was no strong correlation shown between self-reported burnout and EHR satisfaction, that doesn’t mean that EHR dissatisfaction isn’t a big contributor to burnout. It just means that many factors play a role in physician burnout. Other research cited in the MedCity News article — research that may have been more purposefully designed to investigate whether there is a causal relationship — suggests a significant link between EHR dissatisfaction and physician burnout.

Do try to educate and influence: Faulkner could have promoted the KLAS study without pushing a self-interested conclusion. She could have cited additional studies (or asked her media relations team to provide them) that bolstered her point. Credibility is enhanced by not over-asserting the authority you have on a topic.

Don’t deny reasonable complaints of your end users: Physicians may not be the ultimate customers for EHRs — health systems typically are, and even at large independent physician practices, someone with letters other than MD or DO after their name is usually making the decision — but they are the ones who use the product day in and day out. The sheer number of physicians who have discussed publicly how dissatisfied they are with EHRs makes it untenable to suggest that it is not a significant contributor to physician burnout.

Do empathize with your end users: Faulkner does well in the interview with Healthcare IT News in describing the “immersion trips” her programmers take to watch physicians using Epic in real-world environments like operating rooms. My advice would have been to acknowledge that physicians have significant frustrations with EHRs no matter which company designs them as a starting point. Then, detail the efforts and resources Epic devotes to making the system easier for physicians to use. Now the foundation is laid for contending that many of the aspects of using EHRs that physicians disdain are the result of government mandates or insurance company requirements. By showing empathy with end users first, an executive gains license to point out that many factors are involved, not all of them in her control.

When a media relations professional or an executives seeks to be a resource to journalists, seeks to influence them rather than try to dictate what the story is, the approach is more thoughtful and nuanced. It can deliver real gains for both the immediate story and the long-term relationship. Or you can try it the other way and be called out by a journalist who hears you throw down the gauntlet.