I recently had an opportunity to pitch one of America’s most well-known and reclusive CEOs to one of the network morning shows.  He had not done a major national television interview since he had appeared on Oprah in May of 2011. He wanted to talk about his personal investment in cancer research and a fundraising challenge to raise a billion dollars for novel research approaches. It seemed like a no-brainer. Two of the on-air team members had very publicly battled cancer and the show had recently and extensively covered fundraisers like the Ice Bucket Challenge. But the producer was very candid and passed because it was too “heavy.” If it involved a viral video that would be one thing, but, he said, they had no interest in just talking about cancer research; videos of cute puppies or kids singing “Let it Go” in the back of a minivan, yes, but cancer research, no.

This ever-softer approach to news is not unique to the morning shows. If you tune in to your nightly news, you’ve noticed that many nights the lead story is the weather.  Snow in the Northeast in January. When that occurs, it is reported as the most newsworthy event in the world. Bill Maher mentioned on Real Time recently that in 2014, NBC Nightly News devoted 25 minutes of news coverage (that’s 25 minutes for the entire year) to climate change. That statistic underscores how challenging it is to sell and tell the serious, more thoughtful side of a news story when air time is instead dominated by CNN’s Blizzardmobile (that would be Don Lemon driving around in a “car”) or a reporter throwing a cup of water into the air and watching it freeze (apparently gripping television).

So how do we tell important stories, even if they don’t involve viral videos with dancing cats?  One answer is to think beyond the usual media suspects. As we know, people are getting their news from all kinds of non-traditional sources. Years ago I worked with Amy Purdy on a meningococcal meningitis vaccination awareness campaign. We had some fantastic hits from The Doctors to Teen Vogue, but none of it compared to the exposure her story of contracting meningococcal meningitis received when she became a contestant on Dancing with the Stars in 2014. Even if we can’t tell our important health care story through a mega-popular show like that, there are still so many ways to think outside the box when it comes to media exposure.

I believe radio is an underutilized medium; a great place to tell a thoughtful story or offer “news you can use.” Yet I’ve worked with companies that flat out refuse any radio interviews because they believe it is a dead medium. That’s a shame because with the increasing popularity of satellite radio and Internet radio and podcasts, there are more opportunities than ever and people are listening. According to an article in the March issue of Fast Company, more people have downloaded Serial than have watched Mad Men or Girls. And the Pew Research Center reported that 91 percent of Americans listen to AM/FM radio weekly – that’s more Americans than are on Facebook. Further, some radio shows, like Morning Edition and Hannity have between 10 and 14 million listeners each week – about the same as American Idol and the Voice. And another great thing about radio is that an expert spokesperson can conduct interviews from almost any quiet spot with a land line, so it can be flexible and more cost effective than arranging an in-studio television interview.

Another huge opportunity lies in the ever-fragmented, ever-growing number of media outlets and shows. Although for a recent pitch I wasn’t able to interest any of the top morning shows in interviewing a reality TV show “star” about his high triglycerides, I was able to secure an interview for him on a major television network’s online news show. The segment was filmed in the same ABC studio as ABC World News Tonight and actually ended up reaching more people via the online format and the TV network’s partnerships with other major Internet sites that also carried the online show. Plus, the segment was on the site longer and easier to share. The increase in news options means there are more opportunities to share important health news. From NewsMax, which is broadcast into all the homes that have Dish, DirecTV and Verizon cable (reaching 40 million homes) to print and online outlets (from Modern Healthcare to Everyday Health) that conduct video interviews and post them on their web sites — just because a major morning show takes a pass, doesn’t mean you can’t conduct meaningful interviews with well-known, informed interviewers and reach huge audiences or very targeted, niche audiences that are most likely to be moved to action by your messages. The times, they are a-changin’: after all, Katie Couric is now the Yahoo Global News Anchor.

Beyond diversifying outlets, I also find it is helpful to meet the media where they are.  So if the media outlet you’d like to target to reach your audience has an affinity for publishing lists (i.e. “The Five Best Ways to …”), then find a way to present the information in the form of a list.  If they tell you they are covering the latest winter storm 24/7, find an angle that relates to the weather. For example, tie cold symptoms or cardiovascular disease trends to weather events. If you can’t beat them, join them.  Along the same lines, can your truly useful information help support an effort the network has to promote itself?  Can it be tied to another show on the network (i.e., a character on a popular show who contracts a disease) or a pet project or cause they are supporting?  

Of course, none of these strategies work without doing your homework, and lots of it: knowing the outlet, the reporter, what’s already been covered and where the gaps lie. If you are pitching a flu-related story to the Chicago Tribune, for example, it helps to remind the reporter that the paper hasn’t done a flu story in four months, yet prevalence of influenza increased to the severe level in the area in the last week (not to mention the fact that star athletes from both the hockey and basketball teams have been sidelined by what is actually a serious, vaccine-preventable disease). Having at least one finger on the pulse of news and pop culture to react and respond is always helpful.   

Iris Shaffer

Iris Shaffer, director in APCO Worldwide’s Chicago office, brings more than two decades of health care communications and media relations expertise. She has extensive experience working for both pharma and medical associations. Read More