Print Posted By Sunrise Health Communications on 01/15/2019

Four tips to unlock the talent of RN spokespersons

Four tips to unlock the talent of RN spokespersons

Two authors writing for the Center for Health Journalism at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism posed an important, necessary question last week: Why don’t health journalists interview nurses? While I recommend reading the full article, here is the crux of the issue that the authors identified:

We recently published a study of nurses’ representation in health news media and found that they were cited as sources in only 2 percent of stories. And most of these were about scope of practice of nurse practitioners or another nursing workforce topic. Nurses were never cited as sources in stories focused on health policy and rarely on the business of health care, despite being in policy positions in government or responsible for overseeing the largest proportion of a health care organization’s budget.

Looking for insights to explain these findings, the authors interviewed 10 healthcare journalists. The authors distilled these conversations down to four reasons why nurses are so infrequently interviewed. 

In two decades in healthcare, I have been on both sides of this issue — first as a reporter and now as a healthcare media relations professional. In this blog post, I want to explore one of the reasons cited in more detail — that public relations professionals at healthcare organizations never recommend nurses. In a subsequent post, I will look at the questions raised in the article from the perspective of journalists.

With an anecdote, the authors illustrate one factor: One reporter focused on cardiac care said she often speaks to a nurse from one health system on background. For the article itself, however, only the physician who leads the cardiac service line can be quoted — at the physician’s insistence. 

This institutional power dynamic has a strong effect. More often than not, health system media relations professionals are assigned to promote a few specific service lines. They work closely with the service line heads and other leading physicians, and it has an orienting effect. The creative thinking that goes into developing media pitches is focused on these individuals alone.

Another institutional dynamic: Registered nurses are the largest employee group (and labor cost) at health systems. The nurses often form collective bargaining units, and even where they have not taken that step, the possibility of a union drive often looms. All too often, leaders may see nursing as a cost to be managed and a union problem to be mitigated, not a resource to be nurtured and celebrated. Media relations professionals reflect that in the leaders they choose to promote for interviews.

The article also hints at another factor, in suggesting that nursing organizations are not as media savvy as physician groups. More broadly, whether by choice or by long-standing custom, individual nurses seem to deflect attention from themselves as individuals and toward the team — the care team, the floor team, the leadership team. While the focus on the team is admirable and, most likely, a factor in the individual’s success, it doesn’t always translate well to a media pitch. The phrase “subject-matter expert” implies that the person speaks with authority. That plays well with reporters looking for concise, impactful quotes.

Here are some tips for better promoting the nurses in your organization:

  • Make the case internally that a nursing point of view will enrich your organization’s message on most topics. Once you have gained buy-in on this concept, it will be easier to devote resources, such as media training, to nurses.

  • Note a subject-matter expert’s nursing background when pitching reporters. As a reporter, knowing an executive had a clinical background usually increased my interest in interviewing the executive.

  • When appropriate, push reporters to interview nurses even when they seek a physician or the CEO. In some cases, you will suggest the nurse to complement the original person requested and in some cases, you will contend that the nurse is more qualified to speak to the issue the reporter raises.

  • Encourage nursing leaders to speak up and also to identify subject-matter executives among their teams who can be set up for interviews with some coaching and support. Knowing who the experts are ahead of the journalist’s request is half the battle most of the time.

The underrepresentation of nurses in health system media pitching has come about inadvertently, for the most part. It will take intentional efforts to fix the problem.

In my second post on this issue, I will delve into the thinking and working style of journalists to help healthcare media relations professionals make better sense of how to approach reporters to better pitch nurses.

Photo credit: AaronShoots on Pixabay