Eamonn O’Neal, Chief Executive of St Ann’s Hospice in Greater Manchester, explains how hospices can tell their stories effectively in the age of digital media.
Brexit. Big Brother. House prices. The latest night out enjoyed by Love Island finalists. The news agenda is gloriously varied and forever changing.
I am a BBC broadcaster and have worked in the media for many years, most recently as Group Managing Editor of Trinity Mirror’s regional publications. I know just how fast the top story of the day can evolve, particularly through the plethora of digital platforms. It is not only the story that evolves but every individual who retweets, shares or comments on social media is, de facto, a publisher and controller of content. The stories are reaching infinitely more eyes and ears than the traditional media could ever hope to reach. Digital delivery of news has moved us on to the era of instant and constant updates, angles and opinions.
So how, with our local profiles, can hospices break through some of the noise and stand out in such a heavily competitive arena? How can we make what is important to us relevant to a wider audience too?
It is becoming increasingly important to tell our story effectively. Telling the story well is not a nice add-on to our business. Hospices of today are sophisticated, complex organisations, and we need to communicate strategically with audiences to help explain what we do, increase access, dispel myths and remain transparent for our donors. Building our brands and telling our story is just as effective as rattling a collection tin if done well. The time has come for hospices to employ or have direct access to dedicated, trained communications professionals.
The truth is, hospice care is relevant to everyone. We know that not everyone needs the specialist palliative or end of life care that hospices provide, but nevertheless, death and dying (whilst not a comfortable subject for some to engage with) is inevitable for us all.
We are also relevant in other ways. We are privileged to be entrenched in our local communities. St Ann’s has been around for almost half a century, and the majority of people in Greater Manchester have a connection to us in some way. Some have known a family we have supported, others taken part in a fundraising activity or event.
When it comes to storytelling, the best communications professionals I know are those who also consume a lot of media. It sounds simple, but engaging with all social media and digital platforms, regularly reading newspapers – both in print and online – and listening to different radio stations or TV bulletins each day really does help you to gain a better understanding of the kinds of stories particular editors are interested in. Lots of people do not do it, and in my previous roles I lost count of the number of press releases that were sent to my colleagues and me despite being totally irrelevant to my publications.
As well as knowing the programmes or publications you are targeting, it is also important to try to build relationships with media professionals in your area. They will be able to help steer you if there is a particular story angle they are interested in, and the better you know the journalist, the more likely they are to give you honest feedback about stories you are pitching to them too. But be aware, as resources diminish, journalists are increasingly incredibly busy, so only approach them when you have significant story ideas to suggest.
When thinking about a story’s appeal, it is not only important to tailor it to the publication you are targeting, but most of all, think about whether it is something that has broad appeal. Would you honestly click on it if you saw it online and did not work for the hospice? Would you tell your friends about it in the pub? If the answer is no, then it is probably worth a rethink. And remember, people are everything – people are interested in people.
If you do not have a communications expert in your organisation, think carefully about who writes your stories. They should be aware of the different styles required by different publications. One size does not fit all any more. For example, our communications team at St Ann’s will provide different stories to different publications in very different ways, often rewriting them up to a dozen times to create different versions to suit the varying target audiences. Do not write press releases – write stories.
It is important to anticipate what might come next too. What questions will press or readers want to know the answer to when they read your story? Having answers prepared, or additional information ready is key – it is frustrating as a journalist to have conversations with people who have sent out a press release, but then refuse to answer questions, expand on detail, or worse still become defensive if asked for more information.
It is obviously important to be helpful, to be transparent, and to be quick to respond – and if you decide to carry out interviews, it is well worth investing in media training for those who may be your spokespeople. It can mean the difference between simply getting your latest message out about an event, and being able to quickly give strategic context and align information with the broader aims of your organisation.
While it is not always easy to cut through in the press, persevering, building relationships and effectively tailoring your story can have a real impact on your reputation. It can help you move closer towards achieving your organisation’s strategic aims, and it can – most importantly – help people to understand what goes on inside hospices, dispelling myths that might create barriers around access to care. You cannot really put a value on that. We all rattle the tin, but people only want to support us if they know why it is important to do so – how vital our care is to the patients and families we care for. We need to tell our story well.
For more information visit St Ann’s Hospice