Thursday, December 10, 2009

Earnhart Explains Carilion's PR Positions


Eric Earnhart's message was simple: "We try to stick to the high road."

And he admitted that's not always easy to do, especially when the bricks keep flying, as they have for the last two years. Earnhart is the public information director for Carilion Clinic, a job not a lot of people would want in these times. But it's a position he attacks with the relish of a former newsman, who has moved to the opposite side of the room at news conferences.

Carilion has been criticized on a number of fronts recently and many of those criticisms, says Earnhart, have little to do with Carilion's mission. The pounding the health care organization has taken on a piece of property that the Roanoke Redevelopment and Housing Authority had condemned that is near a Carilion development, for example, "has about this much to do with our mission as a health care organization." He held his thumb and index finger about 1/4 of an inch apart.

Earnhart says his most significant challenge in the nation's 72nd largest media market is the sheer number of media outlets. The FRONT surveyed niche publications alone a year ago and found 26 of them. That doesn't count the local daily, television and radio stations, blogs and anything else out there that carries news. "Look at how much [local] media there is," he says, "and how many pages and newscasts they have to fill." Because Carilion is one of the region's largest employers (12,000) and because it is a huge economic engine, "everything we do is in the spotlight."

Earnhart also insists that "the nature of the media ... does not lend itself to complicated issues" and many of those being reported are far more complex than is being explained in stories. "We have to depend on catch phrases," to explain those difficult issues, he says. To explain Carilion's clinic model--which has received considerable criticism in the community and from the press--he says the organization settled on the phrase, "More doctors working together for you," but that gave rise to the question, "How much detail is lost in that? A lot."

As Carilion has evolved since the late 1980s, says Earnhart, "we've tried to maintain a consistent message" with major changes hitting "every few years." The solution: "A simple message repeated over and over."

Despite the negative reports on Carilion in the past two years, says Earnhart, "our market share has remained pretty stable. It has changed very little."

His advice in handling a difficult press:
  • "Stick to the high road ... Don't say bad things about other people even though they're saying bad things about you.
  • "Correct inaccuracies, but respect opinion that does not agree with yours.
  • "Don't elevate the opposition's status.
  • "Don't take things personally even when they're meant personally.
  • "Don't fight your battles in the media.
  • "Remember that the more you talk about it, the more you talk about it.
  • "Media coverage is a finite commodity, so push the positive.
  • "Let your actions speak louder than your words."

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