Public relations in the NHS: Part II – Understanding what the media demands

In the second of a two-part series on public relations in the NHS, our associate David Powles, who has worked in newsrooms across the UK for 23 years, appraises the current media landscape and offers some tips on understanding what the media demands and how to get your stories noticed.

In my previous post I talked about the importance of celebrating the NHS, in particular the people working within it, and why getting people’s stories out there matters so greatly.  

However, I am fully aware that at times it must be incredibly frustrating trying to do that. No doubt your calls and emails often get ignored and it is increasingly hard to work out the best way to work with a media industry that has fewer staff, more to do and is in a real state of flux.  

Having recently left my job as editor of the Eastern Daily Press, I was asked to host a breakfast with Norfolk charities to discuss how to make the most of their content.   

The feedback was positive, so I thought it might help our Blue Lozenge network, with a particular focus on health stories. 

Current media landscape  

The media industry is still very much at a crossroads. Although the internet is no longer the new kid on the block, many media outlets are still struggling to work out how best to adapt their long-term model so they can have a sustainable future.  

One thing is certain, a thirst for news hasn’t changed and the public are still accessing news in their droves. However, what has changed, is that people prefer to get their news in many different ways to before – and they have no end of options from where to get it.  

For the established media this has had the following impact…  

Print – At both regional and national level, print figures are in decline. For some regionals that is particularly bad, we’re talking 20 percent drops year on year. However, it’s important to remember that those remaining readers, many of them aged 50-plus, could be the key demographic that your trying to reach. Print media remains influential and I predict will do so for many years to come.  

Digital – After year upon year of substantial growth, many news outlets are seeing a bit of a flatline in their audiences. That said the potential audience on some websites, especially the national ones, is staggering. However, it’s important to remember digital audiences won’t read every story and are traditionally less engaged with what they’re reading than those reading hard copy, watching television or listening on the radio.  

Social media – Of the mainstream social media outlets, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn are currently the most effective for news outlets in terms of audience gained. X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, is declining in its reach potential. Most news organisations are now seeing TikTok as the next serious player to emerge – so it’s worth thinking about how you integrate that into your campaign planning.  

Television – Amid the growth of online audiences, television news has remained relatively stable and people’s interest in round-the-clock news does not appear to be on the wane. Resources are challenged due to declining commercial revenues, but it’s worth keeping an eye on the BBC and ITV who have big plans around digital growth.  

Radio – In many ways the radio landscape echoes that of print. Most radio stations, nationally and locally, are suffering from declining audiences – yet their older demographic may appeal to the brand you serve and watching how radio interacts with audio devices like Alexa in your home could change the shape of radio. 

What’s next in print media? 

Despite the many challenges facing the printed media, it will be around for a long while yet and the nationals still have a great influence in the UK. In terms of the local media, it seems likely that more newspapers will fall by the wayside, or that the bigger titles might reduce to two or three days a week.  

Where this leads digital remains to be seen and several commercial models are currently being trialled to see which ones, if any, stick. Some outlets continue to offer their content for free, relying on large scale audiences and the commercial revenue that brings, whilst others are trying a paid-for model, with fewer adverts and smaller audiences. I believe that has potential – but the quality has to remain and that is the challenge facing any newsroom where budgets are being squeezed.  

It’s worth keeping an eye on some of the new products that are emerging, however, especially at a local level. Nimble, quirky and campaign-led brands such as the Bristol Cable in Bristol, and The Mill in Manchester might just have found that balance between producing quality journalism that enough people want to read to pay for it.  

Challenges and opportunities

All the above no doubt presents a massive challenge to our sector. Many newsrooms, across all platforms, have smaller teams, producing more content across an ever-growing number of platforms.   

They are under increased pressure and probably find it harder to devote time to maintaining relationships. There is a higher churn, they are harder to contact and harder to get to know on a personal level.  

Most newsrooms have less experienced staff and as such they are not as consistent as they once were. Stories that would be published one week, simply may be ignored the next.  

All of this makes it harder to get your story out there.  

Dealing with the modern media can be an incredibly frustrating experience and one in which you have to show patience, determination and no doubt bite your lip a few times.  

But all the problems mentioned above, also present a real opportunity. Newsrooms may have fewer journalists, but the demand for content has not decreased. If anything, it will have gone the other way.  

If you can get an in with the relevant journalist or news editor and find out what their brand wants – and how it wants it – that creates a massive opportunity.  

From my experience, with regards to stories relating to the NHS, human stories remain key. A piece of new data, a new technique or success story is only going to score if it comes with a case study, a human tale that puts it into context and makes the reader, viewer or listener connect with it on an emotional level.  

Maximising your story’s potential 

There is a really straightforward way to maximise the potential of your story in the current media landscape – make it as oven ready as possible.  

It may sound a bit defeatist, but if your release is as fully formed as possible, then that’s likely to find its way onto the pages of the relevant newspaper or website – and possibly even onto the radio or TV.  

I would recommend, therefore, really spending time looking at what media outlets are looking for. Yes, it’s a new angle; yes, it’s an exclusive or something that’s never been revealed, but it’s also great words, several quotes and case studies. And more recently it’s also become great pictures and video too.  

If you can deliver a quality package that ticks all of these boxes – you’re definitely more likely to get the kind of reach your client is after.  

That doesn’t mean journalists have become lazy. They’ll still chase after a great story – but with all the pressures they are now under the bar has probably been raised higher than ever before.  

I also believe there are subtle ways many organisations can put themselves into the public limelight beyond just a traditional release.  

What is your client an expert in? Can you convince them to be available for comment should that issue emerge in the public eye?   

If so, and if you can successfully get that across to the right media outlets, they could become the ‘go to expert’ in their field. What a fantastic way to put across their expertise on the respective subject.  

If you are going to do that, however, do make sure that person is on hand when needed as speed is of the essence. If you cannot deliver as promised, media will soon look somewhere else for that relevant bit of analysis.  

How often does the organisation you represent curate its own news? Media at all levels love data and love statistics to delve into. If you have the budget to commission a report, survey or some top-level data to release, that really can go a long way in terms of securing coverage.  

I know it can be frustrating, but do not be deterred. There are still key media people out there willing to form a relationship, you might just have to work a bit harder to find them and to nurture them. If you are lucky enough to forge a good relationship with the media you need to work with, don’t be afraid to ask them exactly what they want and what performs well for them and their brand.  

If you can fully understand the changing demands in the ever-changing world of media – you’ll end up with a much better result for the people you represent.