Getting over healthcare's 'ick factor'

Some ailments may be taboo to discuss, but reporters still want to write about them.

Some ailments may be taboo to discuss, but reporters still want to write about them.

Because of the soaring costs and increasing complexity of modern medicine, consumers are becoming far more proactive when it comes to gathering healthcare information. The lifestyle press has responded by not only boosting the amount of health-related stories it's doing, but also by showing an increased willingness to delve into subjects once considered taboo.

"The 'ick factor' behind such conditions as erectile dysfunction, stress urinary incontinence, and irritable bowel syndrome is now largely destigmatized," notes Bob Brody, SVP and media specialist with Ogilvy PR's healthcare practice.

Even with this increased interest in healthcare, Ken Hunter, account supervisor with PRACO Public Relations & Advertising, adds that smaller, lesser-known health companies can still face a challenge pitching many heath reporters if they don't have breaking news. "A lot of reporters want to know if the [Food and Drug Administration] just gave it clearance or approval, or did a major medical journal recently a do a study or peer-reviewed article," he says. "If you don't have either, it can be tough to get them interested."

The exception to this, Hunter adds, is the increasing number of feature writers looking to humanize today's medical issues. "If you can come up with a compelling patient or a celebrity angle, those are gold," he says.

What may be surprising is how many people are willing to be interviewed on how they treated an embarrassing ailment. Fleishman-Hillard client Ethicon has a surgical procedure for hemorrhoids, and Holly Lucas Bachand, VP at Fleishman, notes, "Most patients are willing to talk about it because this treatment works with less pain and quicker recovery."

Along with great patient and doctor testimonials, Hunter adds that lifestyle healthcare pitches also benefit from strong visuals. "Some of this stuff can be fairly grizzly, so you have to be careful," he points out. "But even with print reporters, you can provide a b-roll burned to a CD that can show them in three minutes just how your client's device works."

But Todd Ringler, Edelman SVP and national health media director, cautions that just because an outlet wants to talk about a disease doesn't necessarily mean it will talk about specific brands and companies. "We have seen some publications that it seems have gone through almost painstaking care to remove the name of companies from their healthcare stories," he says.

This can frustrate companies solely focused on brand-building, but Ringler argues it can still be a win over the long term. "We try to counsel clients that the first three or four major stories we get out may not be specifically about your drug or treatment, but can be more disease-oriented," he says. "Then later we can do branding."

Ringler also points out that outside of business and wire services reporters, few healthcare journalists seem interested in talking to health company executives. "Most media view that if it's a company person talking, they're only going to tout one version," he says. "So you want to go into a pitch with a list of academics who share a similar opinion about a healthcare issue in the hopes that most of them will offer up opinions that are least mildly favorable toward your client."

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges to pitching healthcare stories to the lifestyle press is in translating complex medical information and terminology into layman's terms, and Hunter advises that PR pros can aid this process by writing the media kit themselves. "You want to get away from the lawyer-approved FDA-style wording favored by many healthcare companies," he says.

Fleishman's Bachand stresses developing a market-by-market strategy by finding a doctor and patient in a community so that news outlets can localize a story.

Carin Canale, president of Porter Novelli Life Sciences, notes that any healthcare-related media plan these days needs a huge Web component and not just for breaking news. "A lot of online healthcare reporters have to file two or three stories a day," says Canale. "They aren't so much looking for hard news as a news nugget in general, something of interest that will hook that audience in the lead paragraph."

Technique Tips


Include great art. It helps illustrate a story and explain to reporters how the product or procedure benefits patients

Focus on testimonials. A compelling patient story can really drive a pitch

Target women, even for male-focused issues, as they tend to make decisions for the family


Focus on just one reporter. Many outlets cover healthcare with a number of different beats

Let the "ick factor" keep you from pitching potentially embarrassing ailments - consumers want to know about them

Make your client the sole source. Doctors, patients, etc. are solid independent resources

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