Beth MartinoRelationships with the media have always been complicated for providers. This was often heightened during the pandemic. Nonetheless, it is important to work toward a mutually trusting relationship with reporters.

Beth Martino, senior vice president of public affairs at the American Health Care Association/National Center for Assisted Living, offers some guidance, whether the relationships are starting out or starting over.

Build Relationships

“One of the first things I suggest is to be as transparent as you can. This is how you engender trust with any audience,” Martino says. Transparency and honesty go hand-in-hand. Honesty, in turn, means saying ‘I don’t know’ when you don’t have a ready answer. It’s perfectly appropriate, says Martino, to say that you don’t have an answer but will research it and get back to them.

At the same time, she offers, “Avoid saying ‘no comment.’ That goes directly against the idea of being transparent.” Consider something you can say that is constructive without violating privacy or organizational policies.

“In my media training presentations, the first slide is someone holding a sign that says, ‘We build relationships,’” Martino says. This isn’t a one-and-done proposition, though. “Building and maintaining relationships over time is important. The last thing you want to do is wait until there is a crisis to have contact with them.” Start, she offers, with an invitation. “Call and introduce yourself. Take them to lunch and invite them to the facility.”

Realize that the reporter may not know everything about long term care, so take the opportunity to educate them about the services and care your facility provides, how staff engage with residents, and other issues, she says.

“Share success stories, and talk about programs or efforts you’re particularly proud of,” she says. Over time, “stay in touch. If you have something you think they’d be interested in, let them know.”

Martino does caution against pushing reporters to cover events or write stories. Instead, she suggests taking advantage of local, national, and regional news to engage the media on an issue. “At the same time, consider how something you’re doing relates to an important or hot issue.

For example, one facility opened a therapy room with a whirlpool and sent a notice to reporters about their new room and the importance of physical therapy. They ended up with a line of people coming to see it.”

During the pandemic, many negative—and often unfair—stories about nursing homes were published or aired. This understandably has made some providers reticent about communicating with the media.

However, Martino says, “If you have had some negative coverage, now is a good time to reach out and try to start over.” This may begin with promoting the fact that many residents and staff are vaccinated and that visitors are starting to come in again. “This is a way to set relationships on a better footing,” she says.

Positive Steps

Whether it’s rebuilding or just starting relationships, a facility tour is a great way for the media to see firsthand what the facility does. “This is an opportunity to show off staff, medical capabilities, services, and the level of care you provide. Many people, including the media, really don’t appreciate the acuity level of our residents and the level of care we provide,” she says.

Don’t forget the value of social media in building trusting relationships with the media, Martino notes. “Take time to post stories and photos about special events, fun activities, new equipment or services, or any other issues that shine a light on the good work you do.”

In the end, she says, “This all takes time. You don’t have to drop everything to work on it. Instead, just commit to an hour or two a week. Reach out to a reporter, organize a tour, or share some creative social media posts. Hopefully, through this minimal time investment you can make progress over time.”