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How EMS leaders can work with the media

Eleven tips to engage with the media and get the word out about your EMS organization


While many of the larger departments have a full-time person assigned to the task of public relations, many smaller departments just don’t have the budget for it. In that case, it’s even more important to learn some tricks of the trade.

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If you turn on the news on Halloween in Oklahoma City, you’ll likely see a paramedic or EMT from the city’s Emergency Medical Services Authority taking a child trick-or-treating who’s in a wheelchair and needs to carry special medical equipment. On Thanksgiving, the local media will feature EMSA paramedics bringing home a vet from a nursing home to have dinner with his family. And at Christmas? EMSA will make arrangements to transport a seriously ill child home from the hospital in time for Santa.

Getting these heartwarming stories in the news is all part of the job for Lara O’Leary, EMSA’s public relations officer and a former TV reporter. She has a keen understanding of the importance of making sure the public understands the role that paramedics and EMTs play in the community.

“It takes a Herculean effort to get paramedics, the media and the patient coordinated, but when you watch that story on the news it always makes you cry, and it makes viewers realize that EMS agencies have the ability and the capacity to make dreams come true,” O’Leary says.

In an era of budget cuts and turf wars, public perception of EMS matters more than ever. To be sure, there are multiple ways an organization can enhance its reputation, from simply doing a good job each and every day to reaching out to members of the community via injury prevention and other outreach programs. But to make sure word spreads far and wide about the good work — and the good works—your agency is doing, you need to harness the power of the media. That’s where a public information officer, also called a media relations or communications director, comes in.

PIO is more than a spokesperson

The basic role of the PIO is to serve as a spokesperson for the organization, particularly when breaking news or major disasters happen. But the best ones go further than that and find ways to showcase the best that paramedics, EMTs and firefighters have to offer.

“In today’s budgetary times, everybody is getting cut back, and you need somebody to be an advocate for your agency,” says Jim Doucette, executive director of the Firefighters’ Burn Institute and former PIO for the Sacramento Fire Department. “So many people don’t really know what their fire department does besides responding to fires. You need to educate them.”

Not only can shoring up public support help “save your own,” Doucette says, but it also allows you to be a good partner with the community. “We’re there to provide a service to the taxpayers, so we need to let them know what we’re doing,” he says.

Some experts say that’s even more important for EMS, which much of the public still thinks of as “ambulance drivers.” While the fire service has a long history of being portrayed as America’s heroes, EMS has been less adept at letting the public know the vital role it plays, O’Leary says.

What’s more, as EMS and the larger health care system struggle to figure out how to care for a swelling population of older Americans with chronic diseases, the role of the EMS PIO will likely become more important.

“The PIO is the patient educator from the EMS perspective on any injury or illness,” says Janet Smith, a San Diego-based public relations consultant and former PIO for Mercy Ambulance in Las Vegas and Medtrans in San Diego. “As health care reform gets implemented, it’s going to be a really important position. More and more people are going to have access to health care, and they need to know how to use EMS more effectively, how not to overcrowd emergency departments, and where the best place is to get help the fastest.”

11 tips for EMS public information officers

While many of the larger departments have a full-time person assigned to the task, many smaller departments just don’t have the budget for it. In that case, it’s even more important to learn some tricks of the trade. To help you do just that, here are 11 tips for dealing with the media and getting the word out about your organization.

1. Know what makes a good EMS news story

“What EMS is involved in every day is the crux of many news stories,” O’Leary says. “It’s emergent. It’s emotional. And when you put those together along with people who are experts, that’s what makes a good story.”

One source of ideas is the news itself. If you hear about the drowning or near-drowning of a child, contact the media and make a paramedic available to demonstrate doing CPR on a child or to talk about the need for pool safety.

For human interest stories, think “trauma and drama,” O’Leary says. Reuniting cardiac arrest survivors with their rescuers is always a good one.

Another type of story is “news you can use,” perhaps tied to the weather or a recent event. Some examples: When the first snowstorm is in the forecast, offer up a paramedic who can talk about avoiding falls on the ice. At the opposite end of the spectrum, O’Leary came up with a “heat alert” for her city. Every time EMSA gets five heat-related calls in a 24-hour period, they issue a heat alert, which gets covered every time. “You can buy a commercial, but people know it’s a commercial,” she says. “When you do a news story, there is instant credibility, and it’s free.”

O’Leary gets a report from a service that tracks media coverage of EMSA and estimates how many people were reached and the value of that coverage. Her heat alerts have generated coverage that would cost up to $90,000 a day if the coverage had to be purchased, she says.

It’s also important to step outside your role and think about what the media — and the public — would be interested in. Reporters aren’t interested in the minutiae of your day-to-day job; they’re interested in the big picture. Something could be really important to you, but consider whether the wider public would care.

2. Be accessible to reporters and editors

After more than 20 years as an engine captain in a busy downtown fire company, Doucette became the department’s PIO, a position he held for nearly five years before retiring last year. “I had never wanted a desk job,” he says. “But I love my fire department. I love talking to people about it. … A lot of people think a PIO is only there to talk to the media. But why do you talk to the media? It’s to get information out to the public.”

There are two keys to doing the job well, Doucette says. The first is to be available not just to the media, but to elected officials, city department heads, and the chief and other fire department staff. For him, that meant carrying a cell phone 24/7 and fielding calls in the middle of the night—and not just for the important stuff. He’d occasionally get a midnight call from an assignment editor from a local TV station who’d seen a bit of smoke and wanted to know what was going on.

The second point is to be responsive. If a reporter asks you something and you don’t have an answer to it, promise to get back to the reporter quickly—and follow through, he says.

3. Find newsworthy events

Look for opportunities to share positive news, particularly around holidays, when government offices are shutting down and elected officials are on vacation, reporters are looking for stories to fill space or air time. If you can offer them a feel-good or heartwarming feature, they’ll likely bite.

4. Handle difficult stories with care

Several years ago, a child died of an asthma attack in an EMSA ambulance that was en route to the hospital but stuck in traffic. “There was great potential for us to look bad,” O’ Leary says.

To head that off, she approached the child’s mother and worked with her on a story to remind people to yield to emergency vehicles. “This child was a precious little girl,” she says. “Her mother didn’t blame us. She just wanted to make something good out of it. She wanted to be able to take that horrific experience and open the eyes of the public.” The story was covered on NBC’s Nightly News.

5. Honesty really is the best policy

The No. 1 rule of speaking to the media is to never lie. That includes quickly owning up to mistakes, Doucette says.

During a routine investigation, several vials of morphine on fire trucks were found to have been tampered with, leading to suspicions that someone on staff was abusing drugs and prompting the chief to remove the drugs from trucks pending an investigation and oversight improvements.

The newspaper got wind of it and ran a story. About a week before the news broke, Doucette had advised his higher-ups that it would be better to issue a news release about the steps the fire department was taking to ensure accountability for the drugs. “That way, you make it less sensational,” he says. “Get your ducks in order. Know what you’re saying. But don’t let them come to you with it. Then they’re controlling the story, not you.”

Though some bristle at fessing up to issues that could put them in a bad light, Doucette believes in telling the truth. “You can’t try to cover up stuff or hide things,” he says. “It just comes back to bite you.”

6. Keep the media ‘fed’

For the most part, reporters are not out to cause difficulties, O’Leary says; they want to get their story done without a whole lot of hassle. “Reporters are not to be feared,” she says. “If you understand the den of wolves, you can keep it fed.”

Breaking news is the meat and potatoes of TV journalism, so make sure questions about car crashes and other events EMS is involved with get answered quickly. In between, offer up stories that depict your agency in a positive light.

Being an ongoing, reliable resource; building a rapport between reporters and the PIO; and letting journalists get to know some of your hard-working paramedics can foster a good relationship. “It keeps the media from turning on you and eating your agency when your agency has made a mistake,” O’Leary says.

Don’t ever expect the media to be your cheerleaders, Smith says; that’s not their job. But if you do take the time to invite reporters or editors to the station or meet one for lunch, you have a better shot at being treated fairly.

7. Let EMS providers be real

Allow your staff to speak journalists like to interview real people: the front-line paramedics and EMTs who are out there doing the job and the patients they’ve touched. They quickly grow tired of hearing from only the PIO, or even the chief, day after day. If you want your story out there, identify members of your staff who are willing to speak to the media and allow them to do so when the opportunity arises, including at the scene of accidents, O’Leary recommends.

8. Prep the interviewees

A good PIO, especially one who has experience as a reporter, will have an idea of what the media is likely to ask and can run through a mock interview in advance. Even if you’re doing your own media relations, take a few minutes to think about what you’d like to talk about and how you’d like to say it. Even better, ask in advance what you might be asked.

“Reporters generally don’t want to make you look bad, especially if you’re a paramedic,” O’Leary says. “Reporters know paramedics are doing them a favor, that they didn’t become medics to be on TV, so they generally choose portions of the interview that make paramedics look best.” That’s less true with higher-ups or the PIO, however.

During the interview, if you feel like you’ve garbled your words, don’t hesitate to ask to start over, she adds.

It’s also a good idea to talk to the patient in advance. Make sure the patient isn’t planning on launching into a tirade about it taking too long for the ambulance to get there, or some other complaint. “I’ve had to let go of some really fantastic stories for that sort of thing,” O’Leary says. “I’ll drop the story for fear that will be the sound bite.”

9. Pay attention to privacy laws

HIPAA has made it more difficult to tell the story of EMS because of increased concerns about violating patient privacy. That can largely be overcome by making sure patients give their permission, in writing, for paramedics to talk to the media. “HIPAA presents an obstacle that’s surmountable, but it takes a little understanding and vigilance,” O’Leary says. “Once they sign a release that allows the paramedic to talk to the media, great things can happen.” (For extra security, have your attorney draw up a media release.)

But be prepared for rejection. Often, patients and families would rather put the incident behind them and refuse to go on camera. “If I get the slightest hint that they do not want to talk to me or continue the conversation, I’ll apologize, wish them well and assure them none of their private information will be used,” O’Leary says.

10. Remember: your staff benefits, too

Being recognized on the news or in a newspaper article can be a morale booster not just for the paramedic interviewed, but for the whole organization. “Paramedics often see tragedy and sadness in their day-to-day work,” O’Leary says. “To be able to be involved in something that is positive from start to finish gives them a sense of well-being instead of the beatings and stabbings that can beat them down.”

11. Consider the growing role of social media

You can create your own news story. Use social media tools and your website to post well-written news releases or videos of your medics discussing injury prevention or of your CEO talking about the goals of the organization in the community.

This article, originally published on Oct. 3, 2011, has been updated

Produced in partnership with NEMSMA, Paramedic Chief: Best Practices for the Progressive EMS Leader provides the latest research and most relevant leadership advice to EMS managers and executives. From emerging trends to analysis and insight, practical case studies to leadership development advice, Paramedic Chief is packed with useful, valuable ideas you simply can’t get anywhere else.