Helen: Welcome to Health Literacy Out Loud. I’m Helen Osborne, President of Health Literacy Consulting, founder of Health Literacy Month and your host of Health Literacy Out Loud.
In these podcasts, you get to listen in on my conversations with some pretty amazing people. You will hear what health literacy is, why it matters and ways every one of us can help improve health understanding.
Today, I’m talking with professional journalist Christopher Cheney. He began as a staff writer at a community newspaper about 20 years ago and has worked in multiple newsroom capacities ever since.
Chris’ experience not only includes print and online media but also producing content for radio and TV. He is now an editor and health plan columnist at the multimedia health care journalism outfit, HealthLeaders Media.
I met Chris when he interviewed me for his column about health literacy. Now it’s my turn to interview him for a Health Literacy Out Loud podcast about the media.
Chris: It’s great to be here, Helen.
Helen: For years and years, I’ve been hearing, "Use the media to get your word out." In fact, I often say that to people about health literacy month and awareness-raising campaigns. Now we’re hearing it from the other side.
Why should we use the media to get our message out?
Chris: I really think it’s a useful tool to broaden the reach of your message. A lot of activity is one-on-one when you’re talking about education in general and health literacy education. I think it really broadens your reach.
Helen: When you say "broaden the reach," that sounds like almost a state-of-the-art term. Can you be more specific?
Chris: It’s different than a town hall meeting or a meeting you might have in a public library. If you can reach out to a newspaper, radio station, television station or website, you’re able to reach a lot more people, whether it’s hundreds, thousands or millions.
Helen: Let’s put this in context. I know that the column you wrote about health literacy went out a while ago, and thank you for including me in that. Tell us more about the reach that an article like that would have.
Chris: HealthLeaders Media has a magazine that reaches about 40,000 subscribers. The column that I write for HealthLeaders Media appears only online. It depends on how popular the topic is. That will determine how many people will read that column. It’s usually thousands of people.
Helen: That’s bigger than any presentation I’ve given. I’ve not spoken to thousands or tens of thousands at once, so I get your point about broadening your reach.
I know you said you’ve worked in a lot of different kinds of media, and you talk about what you’re doing now. Explain to all of us what’s included in that overall term “media.”
Chris: It’s grown over the past couple of hundred years. Back in the early 1800s, newspapers were pretty much the only mass media. Early in the 20th century, you had radio added to the mix, and then television. Over the past 20 or 30 years, the internet has become a really big force in the media and journalism.
When I say the media, I think of it as multimedia.
Helen: Would a podcast like this one count as the media?
Chris: Absolutely. I think this is under the heading of online media.
Helen: What I’ve learned about this for all the many years I’ve been doing a podcast is that it’s like a radio show, but it reaches a very specific audience. In this case, it’s a very loyal audience of people who care about communicating health information more clearly.
Do other kinds of media reach that loyal but more narrow audience, too?
Chris: I think that’s one of the trends that you’re seeing as this multimedia landscape matures. It used to be that, for newspapers, you’d write for people from age 8 to 80.
Now you see a lot of websites that are really specific in terms of the audience they’re trying to hit, like HealthLeaders Media. As the name would imply, we’re trying to direct our content to an audience of chief executive officers, chief financial officers and chief medical officers.
The outlet that I’m working for right now is very similar to yours in terms of trying to focus on a specific audience.
Helen: Probably, like all the work that we do in health literacy, we need to know our audience, and we need to craft our message in consideration of our audience.
You’ve been doing this work for 20 years. You’re an editor, a writer and a producer. You wear many hats.
Tell us all how we, as people who care about health literacy and health communication, can partner with the media.
Chris: I think you hit the nail on the head in your question by saying "partner with the media."
When you’re reaching out to the media, to a newspaper or to a radio station, with a story idea or whatever message it is that you’re trying to convey, you really need to think of it as any other kind of business partnership or partnership in your life.
You want to do your homework. You want to know who you’re dealing with, if at all possible, and you want to pick your partners carefully. You want to be dealing with someone that you can really trust over time.
That goes both ways. As a journalist, I want to be able to trust the sources that I’m working with as well.
Helen: That’s really interesting. You raised a point about us reaching out to the media. In the instance that happened with you and me, you reached out to me.
I think that was a very lucky and nice situation that happens sometimes, but a lot of health literacy folks I know want to get their message out, so they’re the ones initiating this contact.
What are some specifics that really work from your perspective? Should they just do a blast of a press release that you can sometimes find for free, or should they focus it? Should they call? How often should they call? Tell us.
Chris: I think you have to do a little bit of everything. The press release is helpful. That’s sort of a shotgun approach where you’re sending out a press release to as many press contacts as you possibly can.
Then there are organizations and journalists in your community, in your state and in the country that you want to target.
I know that where you are in eastern Massachusetts, there are some very good media outlets that have experience writing on health care topics. The Boston Globe and WBUR radio come to mind.
You really want to do a little bit of everything.
Ideally, over time, as you continue to reach out to members of the media, you can develop those trusted relationships and go back to people that you’ve worked with in the past that you know that you can trust to carry your message and to do a good job with it.
Helen: Thanks. The ones that you mentioned, yes, there are large media outlets in the greater Boston area.
A lot of health literacy folks I know often go to a local newspaper or cable TV station. Do those have merit too?
Chris: Absolutely. I think the same kinds of principles apply, though. There are going to be local journalists that are familiar with health care issues, and then there are going to be local journalists that really don’t know anything about it. You’re going to have to craft or develop your partnership with those people differently.
If you’re dealing with someone locally who really has very little experience with health care, one of the first steps of developing that partnership should be really working to bring that journalist up to speed, giving as much background information as you can and making sure that the journalist really understands the material that you’re trying to convey.
Helen: Talking about knowing the journalists, developing that relationship and doing your homework, how in the world can we find out about journalists?
I’ve gotten to know you because you and I are planning this together, but how do people get to learn about journalists?
Chris: That’s one of the things I love about the internet. All you have to do is fire up your Google search engine, Google your local newspaper and the words "health care" and see what pops up.
Look at your local newspaper. Does it have a health care section that it’s running on a particular day of the week? Find out who the editor is of that section or which writers are writing for that section.
It’s really like any other partnership. You want to do your homework and try to get a handle on who you might be working with.
Helen: Thanks for that, Chris.
Let’s flip it to the situation of how you and I met. You came to me. That’s nice. I didn’t have to do my homework and reach out to you. In addition to that, how do the media find the spokespeople they want to interview?
Chris: It comes through a whole bunch of different channels. I’ve been at HealthLeaders now for almost a year. I’m at the point now where I’m getting bombarded with emails with story pitches and story ideas on a daily basis.
In this particular case, I had seen Health Care Literacy Month through an insurance coalition. I fired up the Google search engine, plugged in "Health Care Literacy Month" and looked at what came up.
You were one of the people that came up. You were the founder of this thing, and you’ve been at it for about 16, 17 or 18 years. When I wanted to write about Health Care Literacy Month, I decided I would try to reach out to you.
Helen: That’s really interesting. I’m glad you raised those two points. When I did create and found Health Literacy Month almost 20 years ago, I knew then that the media pay attention to these annual events.
That’s why Health Literacy Month was then and remains in the Chase’s Calendar of Events. I know that the media go there. Even when it was just a little inkling of an idea, we got in. I was strategic on that.
You raised another interesting point. You checked me out in ways. You know that this event’s been going on for a long time and that I have credibility. You went into this with some assurance that this might work.
That’s neat how you found me and I found you, and we had this article together.
Building from there, Chris, what else would you like our listening audience, who all care about health literacy, to know about working with the media?
Chris: I think it’s important to understand that there are benefits and risks involved. We’ve talked about the benefit. The key benefit is expanding your reach and being able to reach more people with your message.
We’ve also touched upon some of the risks that are involved. If you’re reaching out to a local journalist who has very little experience with health care, you run the risk of your message being mangled in the process of it being presented.
That’s why I said it’s really important if you are in a situation like that to really try to educate the journalist before you even get started in the project.
Helen: Chris, can we just go to that? My message has gotten mangled from time to time. It feels really weird. Somebody calls and interviews you for 15 minutes, 20 minutes or half an hour. I do my best to do it. Then I see this in print and say, "Oh my goodness. That isn’t what I meant."
Does that happen? Is that one of those risks?
Chris: It is one of the risks, and I think that goes back to what we’ve already been talking about in terms of partnerships. You wouldn’t buy a car from somebody who just rolled a car up to your front door and said, "I’ve got a car for you here. Do you want to give me $10,000 for it?"
If you get that sense that this isn’t a good deal for you, like if someone calls you out of the blue and they really don’t have a good handle of what the facts are, it’s okay to say no.
You can say no, or you can say, "Can you hold on for a second? Can we dial this back for a few minutes? Let me fill you in on exactly what I’m doing. Let me send you some material that you can review, and then you can call me back in a day or call me back in a couple of hours once you feel more comfortable with the material." It’s okay to say that.
Helen: To me, that really embodies that partnership.
The issue of time comes up a lot. I’ve heard over the years that if a journalist contacts you, they’re probably at deadline and you’d better respond right away. Meanwhile, health care folks and health literacy folks are probably swamped with projects too.
What about that issue of time?
Chris: That really is an important consideration, particularly when you’re talking about a local daily newspaper, for example. If you’re getting a call from a local daily newspaper, that reporter is almost certainly on a very tight deadline, a deadline like today.
It is important to be sensitive to the deadline needs of a journalist, but, again, it always comes back to this concept of partnership. If someone is calling you out of the blue that you’ve never worked with before, it might behoove you to say, "I really can’t talk to you right now. I can’t talk to you about this topic."
It’s really amazing to me that this kind of conversation, like the one we’re having right now, doesn’t happen more often. I think if your health literacy colleagues had more of these conversations amongst yourselves and with journalists that you’re working with, you’d become more savvy to the whole process.
Helen: I really am treasuring this. I know from my perspective I very much felt a partner with you as we were going through that. We connected.
That’s why I wanted to bring in the other side of this conversation. Truly, we are partnering together. Thanks so much for helping us move this forward.
I have one last question. As you go about your work being a journalist and working in health care, what gets you excited to go to work?
Chris: I feel so fortunate to be doing the work that I’m doing right now. There is revolutionary change going on in the health care industry in this country, and there really is a need for journalists, health literacy educators and for everyone working in the health care field to reach out to their communities.
In my case, there’s a need to reach out to an audience and help educate and help spread solid, factual information.
It’s such a complicated process. It’s such a fast-paced process that it’s really easy for it become untracked and, for people with questionable motives, to spin things, turn things and obstruct things. It’s really not in the public interest.
That’s what makes me excited about doing the work that I do every day. I feel that, frankly, I’m wrapped up in something that’s really historic. It’s a very humbling experience.
Helen: We’re in it together. Thanks so much, Chris. Thanks so much for sharing your perspective on how we can indeed really partner with the media to amplify our message, reach a broader audience and work with skilled journalists like you.
Thanks so much for being a guest on Health Literacy Out Loud.
Chris: Thank you, Helen. It’s been a pleasure.
Helen: Wow. We just heard so much about how we can use the media to move our health literacy message forward. Health literacy is really much bigger than any one person, profession or program. It’s a real partnership.
For help clearly communicating your health message, please visit my Health Literacy Consulting website at www.HealthLiteracy.com.
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Did you like this podcast? Even better, did you learn something new? I sure hope so. If so, tell your colleagues and tell your friends Together, let’s let the whole world know why health literacy matters.
Until next time, I’m Helen Osborne.