BP Oil Spill: Hospital PR Case Study

I had a nice opportunity to talk this week with Taslin Alfonzo, who does media relations for a Louisiana hospital that has treated workers involved in the BP oil spill cleanup. She mentioned a story in which her hospital had made national network news, and that her SMUG training had played a role, so I asked if she would be willing to share. Here’s her recap of the story (and I’ve embedded the NBC Nightly News piece at the bottom of this post as well):

West Jefferson Medical Center (15min South of New Orleans) has treated a total of 11 oil spill workers who say they have been affected by the fumes from burning off the oil and from being sprayed with dispersant.

None of the workers wanted to talk to the media, but one of them was willing to talk to me. So, I pulled out my iPhone and asked if I could record an interview with him. I asked the gentleman about his symptoms, how he was transported to West Jeff, and what he thought about our medical service. After the 30 to 40 second interview, I asked him if it was okay if I posted his video on our website. He agreed, signed a consent and asked that it only be displayed on our website. He did not want me to distribute it to the media.

So, I did just that. When I edited the video, I made sure to put our website (wjmc.org) under the man’s face in the video so media couldn’t claim it as their own or not courtesy WJMC. Then, I sent out a press release to all media outlets (local & national) telling them I had exclusive video of an oil spill worker treated at our hospital. Some of them used the video and never mentioned us (but we had the bug…ha!), others properly credited us and some news outlets refused to use it because of the bug.

Needless to say it got national attention. Our website and doctors appeared on NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams, ABC News Tonight, and various local stations.

The best part was I got the whole idea from Lee Aase, the social media guru!

I’m glad for whatever inspiration I contributed, but of course the credit goes to Taslin for seeing an opportunity to apply the MacGyver mindset in her situation, and then acting on it. Here is the first part of the NBC piece, in which her hospital was featured:

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

A few quick lessons/observations:

  1. You don’t need a big staff to effectively use social media tools. West Jefferson has three people, I believe, for media relations, marketing and community relations. In fact, the tools like the iPhone and Flip video camera are even more valuable for the smaller shops.
  2. If the story is big, and if TV networks don’t have a way to get footage, they will use yours. Ideally, I’m sure, NBC would have preferred to interview the patient directly. The patient didn’t want that. Taslin’s video was the only video available.
  3. Video quality is less important than content. It didn’t matter that the video was taken with an iPhone, and that it was available only on the Web site. What mattered was what the patient had to say.
  4. The traditional press release still has a role. Having the video on the wjmc.org site wasn’t going to lead to coverage if Taslin didn’t send out the news release. She perhaps could have just sent emails with the link as a pitch, and that might have worked. But the news release spread the word quickly to media outlets. Timeliness is key; getting the word to media quickly made it more likely that they would use Taslin’s video instead of working for a day or two to find a patient on their own.

It’s great to see this example of a SMUGgle thinking creatively and using the tools at her disposal to tell the story.

How about you? What’s your best example of using social media tools for mainstream media relations?

7 thoughts on “BP Oil Spill: Hospital PR Case Study”

  1. After reading this I have mixed feelings. While I agree that was a genius move on her part, a part of me wonders if the patient truly was treated fairly. I mean, some folks don’t get it that if you put something on the web, it can spread quickly. Did the patient truly understand that the interview may end up on media? Was it just a case of him not wanting to do an interview with a reporter (not that a PR person is much better at times! LOL!) If so, then great. If not, then shame on the hospital PR person for “tricking” him. I would be curious to see what the patient thinks after seeing his interview turn on on nightly news.

  2. Yes, I have to question the ethics of this. I would feel very weird about emailing local and national reporters to tell them the video was there, regardless of whether my organization’s URL was on the video. I would have simply posted it and not sent out the email; if media found it, OK. Or I might have talked to him more about why he didn’t want it distributed, to get some ideas of what he was OK with and what he wasn’t. Signing my hospital’s HIPAA form, regardless of what the patient says verbally, would allow this kind of distribution, but I feel like we owe our patients more than just what won’t get us sued.

  3. I agree with Kerri G. The patient specifically said not to distribute the video to the media. While the video itself wasn’t distributed to the media, the video was still promoted to the media. I would also like to know what the patient’s reaction to this was.

    Great use of technology and creativity … but I think it is important that we as PR professionals remember that we are representing not only our organization but our customers, too.

  4. Two years ago on St. Patrick’s Day, we had triplet bull calves born naturally to a first calf heifer in Washington State University’s veterinary teaching hospital. Having taught reproductive physiology in graduate school, I knew this was a very rare occurence–estimated at 1:700,000. Simultaneously and with the owner’s permission, my colleague and I produced a brief press release, a Tweet, a Facebook entry, and we popped video up on YouTube. By our measure and real time monitoring, we saw the story picked up around the world in a very short amount of time. How short? Malaysia newspaper websites had it posted within 26 minutes of release.

  5. I agree 100% with Kerry G. and others. I was surprised of the congratulatory tone of the entry when I might have considered using it as a lesson in listening to a patient’s wishes and adhering to HIPAA rules. The patient clearly stated that he did not want the video to go beyond the hospital website. What part of that message gave the media relations representative the authority to tell the media exactly where to find it?!! I believe this action truly betrayed the patient’s trust.

  6. I agree with the above posts. We (public/media relations professionals) must adhere to the patient’s wishes and HIPAA rules. Did Ms. Alfonzo not listen to the patient when he stated he did not want the footage distributed to media? If media stumble onto the WJMC website and find the footage is something totally different than sending a press release. Shame on her for being unprofessional!

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