The secret to powerful healthcare PR: It’s all about the patient story

by | Apr 24, 2023 | Public Relations

It’s no secret that the pandemic changed the game for public relations across every vertical—but none was more affected than healthcare PR. More than nearly any other industry, the healthcare media landscape has been severely impacted by the last few years, with national reporters having tunnel vision on COVID-related topics and trade reporters just trying to keep their heads above water. PR pros especially felt this shift, as securing healthcare features in the media became increasingly difficult.

Now, as the dust is settling and we slowly enter a post-pandemic society, reporters who used to sit under healthcare/medicine beats have fallen victim to changing newsroom dynamics—either burning out and leaving the industry or transitioning to cover multiple beats at once. As a result, it’s more complicated than ever to break through the noise of the crowded healthcare media landscape.

So, what does the future hold for healthcare PR? And how can PR professionals crack the tricky code that is healthcare media?

I predict we are entering an era where patient stories will be the most necessary tactic PR pros should have in their toolbelt. Read on for my top four tips for securing healthcare coverage using patient stories and why this tactic is the secret sauce that all healthcare PR pros should consider.

1. Patient stories don’t have to be dramatic to be impactful

When mining for patient stories to pitch to the media, there’s a common misconception that we must uncover stories that are out of the ordinary or extremely dramatic. But sometimes, even the simplest or smallest stories pack a punch.

For example, in a past role of mine, I was working for a regional health network, and an elderly couple both found themselves in the hospital while fighting sickness—together but in separate rooms. The nurse who cared for them knew they were married and put them both in the same hospital room, positioning their beds next to each other to allow them to hold each other’s hands.

While not a huge, dramatic move, we leveraged that anecdote as a feel-good story for the media to show how the health network truly cared about its patients beyond their physical health. That’s the power of impactful patient stores: they make people feel something, even through the simplest actions.

2. Make sure the patient’s story is relatable

It’s easy to think that in the healthcare PR space, stories about extremely rare or never-before-seen diseases will lead to consistent success since those are the typical stories that gain attention. However, the truth is that while those topics are interesting to learn about, a rare illness or disease isn’t exactly something that many people can relate to.

It’s critical to craft and tell stories relatable to a broader audience. For example, we know that cancer, unfortunately, affects a large group of people—which is why we see success with stories about patients who are beating the odds and ringing that bell at the end of their treatment. Everyone can relate to those stories because they likely know someone affected by this disease.

3. Show empathy and put yourself in the patient’s shoes

Make an effort to be aware of how the story you are telling makes you feel to understand the patient’s feelings better. For example, I once got to know a patient with skin cancer who was part of a clinical trial that resulted in several amputations as part of his treatment. At the time, his outlook was poor—but then he started receiving an advanced treatment through a clinical trial, and he said to me, “It’s like my cancer was just melted away.”

Talking to that patient, I felt hope for him and everyone else suffering from that disease—and I knew it would be a successful story that broke through to the media because it elicited such emotion. That conversation really spoke to me, so I fused that sense of hope into my PR outreach with his story, and it got successful coverage.

Sometimes stories like these seem to fall in your lap, but you can search for patient stories with the same impact. Consider mining for stories that make you feel something—and trust your gut when a story immediately moves you. If you are, chances are that a reporter will feel the same.

4. Leverage regional media for the greatest success

As I mentioned, it’s not a surprise that the general public wants to read and hear stories they can relate to, so it makes sense that human interest stories like patient successes will have a greater chance of being featured in regional or local media because the stories hit close to home (literally and figuratively). In addition, people WANT to hear from their local news channels; in fact, I’d bet that most people trust their local news station more than a big national show.

That said, start by thinking about the local element of any patient stories—all healthcare is technically local, so it shouldn’t be too hard to uncover a localized spin on the story at hand. Then, frame the story in a way that matters to people on a local level, and consider the stance of local readers who wish to read about their neighbors, colleagues, and other people who are nearby. That familiarity makes editors and readers connect to the story personally and better understand who they are learning about.

The media landscape is continuously fluid, as there’s no telling what challenges society is up against or how it will change. Due to this, it’s essential to tell stories relevant to the current moment to land with the public at large. In addition, patient stories can be relatable, intentional, and impactful if their point of view empathizes with the person whose story is told, and can gain more traction if they focus on the human, local aspects of the story. Following these steps as a basic guideline, PR pros are bound to break through the crowded healthcare space and land coverage that can speak effectively to the masses.

Matt Burns
Matt Burns is an Account Supervisor at Red Thread PR.