Friday, August 21, 2009

The Power of the Well-Written Press Release...

When the Alameda County Medical Center sent a press release late Wednesday afternoon, it attained the status of gospel most students of public relations dream about. Its talking points dominated the few articles written about San Leandro Hopsital last week.

The release was well-written, stringing together, in modest tones, every fact the county and Sutter has consistently offered. Make no mistake, this is precisely the job any PR department is designed to perform. It is not, however, the role of news organization to pass that information along unfettered without questioning its content. (Read the ACMC press release announcing its lease with Sutter Health here.)

The standard press release is intended to attract attention. It can become a cheat sheet for reporters, too. If for instance, the Lupus Foundation sends a press release announcing a fundraiser, give it to an intern and rewrite it. Yet as the traditional news media continues their slow slide into oblivion where staff is cut and resources dwindle, the power of the press release when it touts something more important and becomes the basis of a story bad things can happen, like, say, losing a hospital.

The tragedy is old news media outlets are going by the wayside, while public relations firms continue to churn out information in their favor.
An article on the web site of local CBS affiliate KPIX must have had PR people high-fiving. The ACMC press release trumpeted the idea San Leandro Hospital would remain open. "Alameda County Medical Center officials say they have signed a lease agreement that will ensure San Leandro Hospital remains open to the public," the article said. While it is true the hospital would technically remain open, the argument is quite specious, since while it would remain a hospital, it would not continue as an acute care facility with emergency room services.

The San Francisco Business Times even allowed ACMC's equivocation of "most likely" to creep into their lede paragraph. "Alameda County Medical Center said Wednesday it’s worked out a new lease deal to keep San Leandro Hospital open, but that 'most likely' that hospital will lose its emergency room and change into a physical rehabilitation and urgent care facility." This is kind of like persuading someone you're not going to hurt them while you hanging them out a 12-story building by the ankles.

Even further, both articles include the seemingly off-handed inclusion the deal would simply send emergency room patients to nearby hospitals such as Eden Medical Center in Castro Valley, Highland Hospital in Oakland or St. Rose Hospital in Hayward. In fact, this is the primary reason for the uproar in the community. The residents of San Leandro have spoken clearly in repeated public hearing they want access to ER services close to their home. This is an important fact omitted from every published article. The public does not want to travel for emergency room care and believe the consequences of doing so to be dire. This is what this story is about!

After a full month without publishing one story on the hospital situation, the Daily Review's Jason Sweeney plan to purchase San did his best to create an amalgam of the two hospital stories that broke last Tuesday and Wednesday, but to the layman the story does more to confuse the reader than illuminate. (By the way, did the Daily Review really need to include the exact address of San Leandro Hospital in the article? Where's the Oakland Coliseum? Oh, it's the giant concrete bowl next to 880. Thanks.)

According to the article, the Eden Township District voted against Sutter'sLeandro Hospital, but Sutter also leased the same hospital to ACMC. Are they buying the hospital, or not? Of course, this is what happened, but without explanation, it only makes the reader scratch their head and turn to the page to the Macy's advertisement. Call it the triumph of the press release or merely the reporters failing to do their jobs.

Unfortunately, San Leandro is becoming a very unwelcome experiment in what may occur when newspapers either fail to exist or drop the ball covering a region in the public's best interest. The deep complexities and contradictions of the San Leandro Hospital story is far too much for one reporter or a even a few to quickly digest. The tragedy is old news media outlets are going by the wayside, while public relations firms continue to churn out information in their favor. Even though, the public has turned out by the hundreds to voice their opinion at various public meetings, the pitch of their anger is small in comparison to the overwhelming majority of people who do not understand the issue or are not sufficiently alerted to its implications. If San Leandro Hospital is closed, you can easily make the argument its demise rests squarely on the shoulders of a hapless local news media.


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