Katie Riley, Vice President of Communications for The Alliance for Aging Research, gives valuable advice on effective ways to pitch the media. Katie discusses how she navigates challenges as a consumer advocate by humanizing news stories. Katie also shares how her team utilized social media for the “Valve Disease Day Challenge” campaign.
DOUG: Can you start by telling us about the work that the Alliance of Aging Research does?
KATIE: The Alliance for Aging Research is the leading nonprofit organization in the United States dedicated to accelerating the pace of scientific discoveries and their applications. And we do this to vastly improve the universal human experience of aging and health. We are all aging from the moment we were born, we are aging. So, my organization works to pinpoint scientific discoveries and make sure that they are applied to our human lives in the form of treatments and medications and whatever that may be.
DOUG: Given that I’m approaching a certain age, I may be open to a sidebar conversation afterwards that our audience may be that interested in. But you started as a journalist. How important is that background and what sort of your top takeaway from your experience as a journalist that informs the work you’re doing now?
KATIE: Yeah. So, I never set out to have a career in PR. I started out as a journalist, and I think that there’s a lot of us out there in the PR world who may have started out the way that I did. I worked at a small community print publication. We were weekly in print and daily online. And at the time that I was there in the early 2000, we were really struggling to figure out how to make the Internet profitable. So, I saw my newsroom go through layoff after layoff, our newsroom shrunk, our staff shrunk. A lot of the journalists and reporters were doing multiple jobs. They were covering multiple beats. They were taking the photo, you know, writing the news article and then putting it online themselves in some cases. So, I think the biggest takeaway that I have from my journalism experience is that when you’re pitching a reporter, you have to think about what their day-to-day life is like. Sometimes it’s just as easy as making the lift as light as possible for them when you want them to cover a story. And that means sending the pertinent details without bombarding, making sure that you’re pitching the right person at an organization. I work in health care communications and back in the 90s there may have been a health care reporter at a publication or a news outlet. And then these days that person may also be covering traffic weather breaking news. So, you have to break the information down for them in a way that we haven’t had to before.
DOUG: Clearly, media relations is an important focus for you. People might think that being a consumer advocate for a group that obviously it’s so important to so many people would be much easier than doing that role for, say, a brand. But what are some of the challenges that you face in communications being a consumer advocate?
KATIE: Yeah, being a consumer advocate, there’s a lot of pressure to being a consumer advocate. You have the weight of a specific population on your shoulders, and you want to get it right, especially when pitching the media. I think it’s really important to make sure that we’re covering, you know, issues that we can dive deep into and really make an impact. We can’t save the entire world, but it’s important to get in on those ones that we are able to do. For me personally, the biggest challenge of being a consumer and patient advocate is it goes back to my journalism training. I was trained as a journalist to be objective and right down the middle of the road and with patient advocacy, you have to take a side sometimes. And that’s been quite an adjustment for me personally and figuring out how to how to navigate that. It’s important to make sure that you’re using all the tools that you can to get those stories out and to advocate for the people that you’re working for.
DOUG: Do you have a process or tips to suggest to try and make it more editorially acceptable?
KATIE: Yeah, I’m a big believer in humanizing news stories whenever possible. Journalists need that connection. You can tell them a story, you know, say, hey, this is the most newsworthy thing in the world, but if they don’t have someone to speak to or have a human voice to it, they’re not going to cover it. So, it’s really important whenever we can humanize something that we do. As an example, one of the alliance’s current priorities is to get the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to cover an FDA approved treatment that helps slow the decline of Alzheimer’s patients. It’s not currently covered, and it’s something that we’re really pushing to get covered because it’ll benefit a lot of people. And I can talk about, you know, making drugs accessible and the way that a drug comes to the market and the politics and all of that, but that’s not interesting. What reporters care about and audiences care about is how is this going to impact someone’s life? They want to talk to the person who has worked really hard to advance their career but has this diagnosis and wants to keep working. They want to talk to the spouse who is concerned that they just want to take their grandkids out to breakfast on a Saturday and then how this drug can help them to do that. So, it’s important to humanize things whenever possible. One of my favorite examples of humanizing a story is from my time at the American Occupational Therapy Association. We had a campaign about how occupational therapy practitioners can assist older people with driving and community mobility. And we had this story of a woman in Maine, I believe it was, and she had had heart surgery and was taking Zumba classes to kind of get her stamina back up and, you know, get back out there, and feel healthy. And she needs to drive to get there. She was in a rural area, so we ran a story about her and how she had an OT help her come and work on her bright red Dodge pickup truck so that she could get to and from where she wanted to go. And she became so confident that she actually took a cross-country road trip to visit her family. And I’ll never forget, The Wall Street Journal covered the story. There’s a photo of the story. This is ten years ago, and this is how it still is burned in my brain of her on the on the cover with her arm out the window and this giant smile and she was just so happy to be doing something that she loved. But it’s so much more interesting than talking about how a seat cushion or a hand swivel can help someone in their car, but it still tells the story. So, I love humanizing things whenever I can.
DOUG: That’s a great tip. And it’s great that, you know, true people always remember their biggest hits. How do you navigate the perception of the Alliance for Aging Research? People might come to it when they hear it with expectations.
KATIE: Yeah. With the word research in your title, people, I think, expect that we work in a building with a whole bunch of scientists in a lab and we do not. We are a small but mighty patient advocacy group who works with those people, but not hand in hand, as one might expect. We are constantly putting out educational materials that are based on research, and we work with researchers and ecologists and physicians and experts in their field to make these consumer worthy materials available to them so that they can learn from them and take them as well. We use social media quite a bit to tag on to different ideas and different themes happening, hashtags, things like that, so that we’re inserting what we’re working on and what our priorities are into those spaces.
DOUG: And finally, I know you’re involved in a campaign and a lot of people we’ve worked on many, many satellite tours, projects and other campaigns that were specific to a day. You’ve got the Valve Disease Day Challenge campaign. What’s been your process to build that and is there anything other people can take away when they’re looking to celebrate a day that might relate to a specific health condition?
DOUG: Yes. We just wrapped up our Valve Disease Awareness Day in February. We have that on February 22nd. It’s strategically placed in the month of February because it also falls during American Heart Month, which is February. So, think the trick to promoting a day is to spread it out as much as you can. We started in early January with this, Listen to Your Heart challenge where we encourage people to go to their medical professional, get a stethoscope check so that they can hear for a heart murmur or something that could signal heart disease. And we didn’t stop there. We reached out globally. We translated our materials into multiple languages, started a social media movement where we encouraged people to schedule their appointment, take a selfie in the car on the way there, take a picture with their medical professional, or just share something that shows that they take their heart health seriously. And we had lots of events. The challenge was multifaceted in that we encouraged heart care centers and hospitals to host events where people could come and listen to their hearts in addition to the individual challenge. And for those we passed out stickers and anytime you can give away something is great. We had heart shaped sunglasses that people really loved and promoted the heck out of it and just made sure that we reached every corner that we possibly could. I know I’m talking a lot about social media with this one, but we had radio media tours, we had press releases, PSA’s, letters to the editor, we just kind of hit everything that we possibly could to flood the market.
DOUG: And that’s really great advice for individuals looking to sort of extend their birthday celebrations. They might want to get on that as well. As we wrap up, any final thoughts you’d like to leave the audience with?
KATIE: My career, It’s taken a trajectory that I didn’t set out to have and I think my biggest piece of advice to PR professionals, especially those that are starting out, is just go with it. If you have an opportunity arise and you think, I don’t know if that’s quite me, think about your marketable skills. When I switched from journalism to PR, I was very nervous in the fact that wondering, hey, this is what I’ve done for ten years, this is what I know. But you think about how you can translate those skills into a different type of work and I think you’ll surprise yourself and how well you can do.
DOUG: That’s really great advice to embrace those opportunities. Thanks so much for being with us.
KATIE: Thank you for having me. This was fun.