William (Bill) Heisel is the communications director for Health Metrics & Evaluation. Heisel worked as a health reporter at the Los Angeles Times and the Orange County Register, where his work was twice named as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He continues to write and edit for the University of Southern California’s Reporting on Health Initiative. Like many journalists today, he has taken his talents in new directions.
I interviewed Heisel back in 2012 and updated our conversation a few weeks ago.
What would you like companies to know before they send you a press release?
I want to start by saying that PIOs (public information officer) play a hugely important role, and most journalism as we know it would cease to function without them. They connect writers to the right sources. They distill complicated information. They provide massive amounts of documentation to meet very tight deadlines. But there’s also a difference between how most in-house PIOs work and how most PR firms work. Firms have a tougher job in many ways because they are being directed by clients to generate coverage, even if the story they are trying to pitch isn’t particularly newsworthy. If you are in-house, you can push back and say, ‘This won’t interest reporters.’ So, in answer to your question, I’m going to focus on the pitches that I receive from firms, because that is the majority of what I receive.
First, it bugs me when a company has hired an outside PR contractor to build a list of contacts who they want to send their latest release to. They don’t care what I write about, except for the fact that I cover healthcare. I get a call from the contractor who says that they just want to update their information. But they don’t know that mostly my stories are not going to portray their client in a positive light because I do investigative reporting. So then they send me a release that has nothing to do with my beat, automatically discrediting them.
For example, the PR person reads one of these reporter databases that shows William Heisel has covered cosmetic surgery. But the PR person has never actually read my story. I end up getting a press kit with a DVD about a company or surgeon’s new cosmetic surgery product/procedure, which I then use for another controversial story. And of course the company is miffed.
The second thing that bugs me is companies who think that if they get interviewed they will dominate my story. They don’t understand that they’re part of the story; not THE story. But they want the story to be about them. Or they’ll pitch only what they’re doing and not make it broader. They don’t get it. And they don’t like the outcome of the reporting. I get a lot of those kinds of queries. Bottom line: Very few people who’ve sent me media kits have ever read my stories. They found me on a PR database.
When a PR person is too involved while I’m interviewing a source it annoys me. They can sit in on the interview, but they shouldn’t be too heavy handed and interrupt the source. I understand that they want people to know what their messages are and what the mine fields are, but they should do it in a way so it isn’t heavy handed.
If you could wave a magic wand what would be the ideal scenario for working with PR representatives when doing your reporting?
Please respond, even if you don’t like the nature of the story. I wrote about the controversy about the APA demanding Suzy Chapman change the name of her blog DSM-5 and ICD-11 Watch after she wrote a post discussing the APA’s DSM-5 changes. I contacted APA, but I did not get a response. I expect the APA to let the public know what they’re doing to address the reporters’ questions, or if they can’t then give us a reason why not. Reporters want to hear something back from the source.
Point me in the right direction. When I wrote about plastic surgeons buying black market skin for cosmetic enhancements, a PR person pointed me to a legitimate company that was processing donated skin tissue to be used for skin replacement on burn victims. While my story was investigating the under-the-radar trading of products from cadaver parts I also addressed the positive side of using skin tissue for burn victims. So PR people can be helpful by providing good sources from the company they represent, as well as neutral sources that don’t have a dog in the fight.
Anytime a PIO provides data or documentation on clinical studies that’s always 10 times more valuable than a quote. The study has to have integrity and provide new evidence. The study will be more newsworthy if it is large in scale, covers a broad period of time, and contributes something new to the field. The study should also explain how it builds on previous findings.
Between tweets and emails I imagine queries are pouring in and you’re totally inundated. What that’s like for you and how to you deal with it? How do you keep up with all the content and still write a story?
Most of the stuff from PR people I don’t know gets deleted.
The story idea has to be interesting and has to be connected to my core topics. I write a lot about healthcare associated infections. One doctor gave me an idea related to that, and I told him to guest post on my blog. His blog led to me writing a bunch of other pieces. I have no idea if there was a PR person involved in him sending me that first email, nor do I care. His idea was interesting. And it led to a bunch of other people writing their own riff on it, including patients, patient advocates, and other physicians.
I wrote about a company called Adverse Events, which lets you look up drug side effects. AdverseEvents presented something that was compelling and new. They were a great example of “show me, don’t tell me.”
What is the value of social media? Do you make use of social media in originating, curating, or syndicating content?
I like the way you’ve broken that down: originating, curating, and syndicating. I usually think of it as gathering, analyzing, assembling and distributing. But your version is more elegant. As for social vs. traditional media, I think there is one clear distinction, especially from a PR perspective. Most social media (and I include blogs here) has very little in the way of fact-checking or even filtering. The pace and the lack of formality allow for a lot more errors, a lot more opinion masquerading as fact and a much greater ability for something horribly off base to go viral.
At ReportingonHealth.org, we are a blend of both models. I still have an editor, thank God, as I had at every newspaper where I have worked. There is still an expectation that we will seek and write the truth, that we will check our facts and that we will correct our mistakes. At the same time, we are writing with a point of view. Our posts are part traditional news story, part essay and part Journalism 101 lecture. This is because our audience is primarily health writers, and our purpose is to elevate the level of health writing — in both traditional and social media.
 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). DSM-5 refers to the APA’s updated manual for the assessment and diagnosis of mental disorders, but does not include information or guidelines for treatment of any disorder.