worked for Humana as a Media Relations Manager
from late 1998 to 2006. Early in my time at the corporate headquarters, I
took a phone call from a producer who stated she worked for Channel 4 BBC
out of London. She was producing a new TV series (supposedly not yet
named) and her team was doing a story on health care and health coverage.
She wanted a representative from Humana to “talk broadly about health
What I did not realize at the time of this call is she actually was
working for Michael Moore on his series, “The Awful Truth” for the
Bravo network. While my director actually conducted the interview (if you
could call it that) with Moore, himself, it was a tremendous lesson in
really digging when a reporter calls to get as much detail out of them as
you can on their real agenda. I had only been in the corporate office
about six weeks when I took the producer’s call. After reviewing the
notes from the initial phone call with my director, we suspected there may
be a hidden agenda.
Looking back, there were several red flags: the producer did not identify
the reporter when asked for his/her name on a subsequent phone call. She
stated it would be a “correspondent”. She also admitted to speaking,
for this series, with one of the health insurance industry’s critics . .
. yet another red flag. She indicated she also had spoken with a Humana
member who would be in the series . . . a third red flag.
At the time, the insurance industry was under a lot of scrutiny (not that
it isn’t still). HIPAA laws prevent companies from discussing
specifics, so we were battling those regulations and company attorneys.
Equally frustrating was when members would go directly to the news media,
which we later learned happened, as the member involved in this case spoke
to a reporter from the local newspaper where the member lived.
When the crew arrived at our corporate headquarters, yet another gut check
took place for me as there seemed to be a nurse with the TV crew, which I
thought was odd. I expressed this to the Vice President of our department
and my director and it was at that point after we had seated the
“crew” in a conference room that we realized Michael Moore was the
correspondent, and he had paid to bring the Humana member with him who was
being featured on the future segment of “The Awful Truth.” No, this
was not a coup for Humana.
As a professional it taught our media team and me, personally, the
Dig, dig, dig to identify
who, what, and why a reporter is calling. What is the real
reason he/she is contacting your company?
Before committing to the
interview, and with social media, blogs and other Internet sites
available, do some additional homework on the show, the producer, any
bias for/against your industry.
Make sure you have a
crisis communications plan in place, especially for field
offices where there may not be on-site public relations support.
Go with your gut when you
get a call from a reporter and it “doesn’t feel right”; it is
likely not going to be favorable.
management is the mainstay of what PR professionals provide to an
organization, you have the right to decline a news interview request
if there’s strong indication it will have negative consequences for
the company (that said, I do not believe in sticking one’s head in
the sand in a crisis in which a company may have been at fault and
needs to rectify the situation).
This incident could certainly
be used (and was locally for a PRSA workshop after the series aired) and
how to avoid such guerrilla-style ambushes. It is a case study about
the importance of preparation and knowing the agenda and purpose for a
Mary Doyle is
an experienced public relations professional based in
Shelbyville, KY with
a concentration in communications
in the healthcare industry.
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