Recap: How the Cleveland Clinic Turns Healthcare News into Compelling Stories

By Scott Tennant, APR, Vitamix

Cleveland ClinicOne could argue that, given the size of its staff and the vast resources to which it has access, there may be little to learn from the Cleveland Clinic corporate communications team. After all, most of us are working with budgets a fraction of the size of the Clinics.

But to say that is to ignore how Eileen Sheil and her group have created a scalable blueprint for the corporate communications department of the future. Sheil and Co. have combined the best of the traditional PR and digital worlds to effectively tell the story of one of the world’s largest academic medical centers.

Sheil, executive director of corporate communications at the Clinic, brought four of her colleagues to the Sept. 13 PRSA event “How the Cleveland Clinic Turns Healthcare News into Compelling Stories” at the House of Blues. Sixty or so local communications professionals turned up to hear a presentation that was originally given as part of PRSA’s national “Case in Point” webinar series.

Joining her on stage were Erica Foreman (senior manager and head of the Cleveland Clinic News Service), Jennifer Guerrieri (manager of digital news content), Kyle Michael Miller (lead of digital news content strategy), and Michelle Decker (social media producer).

The Clinic is truly massive, with more than 58,000 “caregivers” – which is how all employees are described – most of whom work on a 170-acre main campus, along with 10 regional hospitals, 19 family health centers, and hospitals in Toronto and Abu Dhabi. Cleveland Clinic London is scheduled to open in 2021, which is also the Clinic’s centennial year.

Sheil says her team’s mantra is “digital, measurable, and mobile,” but they still feel that traditional media matters. To supplement that media outreach, the corporate communications team runs the Cleveland Clinic News Service, an in-house television and radio production agency that has been in existence since 2002.

The News Service proactively creates and distributes 20-25 health stories a month to hundreds of media around the U.S. These patient-centered packages each includes a script, a web article, video clips, and audio clips for radio use. It is content that is given away for free, and there is no requirement that the Clinic even is mentioned when a media outlet picks it up.

This type of relationship-building has been crucial to the Clinic’s communications success, particularly during the recession when so many national networks were forced to cut budgets and were starved for interesting stories. As a result, many journalists go to the Clinic first when working on a health or medical story – and even when they have more famous hospitals like the Mayo Clinic in their backyards.

The team also recently launched the @CleClinicNews Twitter handle, which is distinct from the main Clinic Twitter account. @CleClinicNews targets a list of 750 journalists (with many others following on their own), a full 70% of whom say they consider it their most reliable social tool for information gathering. The Clinic uses the handle to pitch physician experts for comment on breaking news, as well as providing a media daily download. The download includes the #AmNewsers hashtag as a way to target morning show producers, in particular.

Still, the hospital does not rely exclusively on earned media channels. A case in point was the Graham-Cassidy Healthcare Bill, which was introduced on a Friday afternoon in September 2017. It prompted then-Clinic CEO Toby Cosgrove to visit Sheil’s office and ask, “What are we going to do about this?”

Sheil knew it was unlikely the team could draft an op-ed in time to place it in The New York Times or Washington Post before the bill was voted on the following Tuesday. Instead, the group wrote the op-ed voicing the Clinic’s opposition to the legislation, quickly had it approved by Cosgrove, and distributed it nationally via Twitter.

Engagement and amplification were immediate and widespread. Retweets came from members of Congress as well as a host of healthcare leaders and influencers. Journalist Chuck Todd called Sheil after the op-ed was released, and less than 48 hours after the bill was introduced, Cosgrove found himself on “Meet the Press” talking about it.

Agility, flexibility, and proactivity – all are crucial for the communications function of the 21st century, Sheil noted.

The same is true for the ability to convey impactful stories in a way that is meaningful for stakeholders. The Clinic got the chance to show off its storytelling chops last year when it performed a total face transplant on the youngest patient ever to undergo the procedure. The patient’s journey from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to face transplant was long and emotional, and the Clinic allowed National Geographic unfettered access to chronicle it.

The relationship with National Geographic stemmed from a longstanding connection to Susan Goldberg, the magazine’s editor and former editor of the Plain Dealer. It turned into a cover story that was widely read, as well as a Clinic digital feature that also had a significant impact.

Sheil and team ended with a word about PR measurement. Just as the Clinic’s patients progress from awareness to consideration to conversation, the Clinic’s corporate communications team has taken its metrics from simple measures of quantity to gauging the quality of placements – all with the goal of increasing patient conversion.

Sheil urged audience members to work toward better measurement of their efforts; a more integrated approach to paid, earned and owned media; more engaging storytelling; and the realization that social media is only of many channels available to the modern communicator.

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Public Relations Society of America, Greater Cleveland Chapter