Media Relations Lessons From the Supreme Court’s Obamacare Ruling


acaLast week, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) announced its ruling on the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and preserved Obamacare subsidies in states with federal insurance exchanges. This landmark decision drew attention from national media in every corner of the country, with commentators and reporters speculating about the ruling and the potential fallout weeks before it came down.

Most healthcare communicators will probably agree that waiting for the decision was the hardest part. After all, preparing for and reacting to an awaited decision is the nuts and bolts of working in public relations. As a member of the SHIFT Communications healthcare practice, I’ve provided insight into the basic steps our team took in advance of the decision, and framed them as tips you can apply to your own communications strategies. We knew that there would be many experts from a diverse array of sectors that would be want to weigh in on the case and make themselves available to the media, so preparation began months before June, when it was known that the ruling would come.

Identify an Internal Team

Before connecting with clients, as a team we had to first look at our own schedules and make sure we assembled a team who could be available throughout the month of June. Once calendars were settled, we established an extensive notification system. This included email alerts, broadcast monitoring and, most important, social media monitoring. Many users first obtain news via social media and then turn to broadcast news for more extensive coverage. We closely monitored the SCOTUSblog, but eventually we found the hashtag #SCOTUS and Twitter handles @SCOTUS and @SCOTUSblog to be the most useful for real-time updates online. This is how we first learned of the SCOTUS decision.

Determine Client Relevance

Does anyone have anything to say? Before connecting with clients, the internal team met and discussed which clients would potentially have insight to provide. While we knew every client in the healthcare space would want to be a part of the ACA conversation, we had to be somewhat picky with who we offered to the media. We couldn’t just offer a client without proper background, credentials and insights.

Designate a Spokesperson

One individual from each client with a relevant message was designated as a primary expert to offer a statement and be available to connect with the media. In early April, calendars were secured separately for our team to connect with experts that were designated by client contacts. We met with them as a team to ensure they would indeed have unique and insightful commentary on the decision. This entailed asking the experts their thoughts on the ACA as it stood at that time, where they saw it heading, if they had any other information to share, pros/cons of both sides of the ruling decision and if they would be available throughout the month of June for comment. Designating a spokesperson also helped to tighten the messaging we used for media relations.

Be Prepared

Theresa Masnik, Account Manager, SHIFT Communications
Theresa Masnik, Account Manager, SHIFT Communications

For communications professionals in any industry, preparedness is a rule of thumb. As a

result of designating spokespersons and finalizing messaging, we were able to work with the experts to develop holding statements for both sides of the ruling. Emails were drafted for both decisions that included quick bulleted points and pre-approved expert quotes.

Preparedness also refers to ensuring that all media databases and contact information were continually updated. We kept a list of the Twitter handles of journalists or reporters we wanted to reach out to. As the conversation gained momentum, we added to the list each day with new outlets and reporters that were talking about the decision.

Be Proactive

Rather than waiting for the announcement to come down and then reacting, we were proactive and offered pre-approved and unbiased insight to a small list of targeted reporters beforehand. Then, once the announcement was public, everyone from our team to our clients to our media contacts were prepared with a high level overview and information for who to connect with for additional details.

Know Thy Audience

Most members of the media that covered the story had very little or even no time to talk to anyone. We had to be cognizant of their time, so we were brief but not pesky. We took to Twitter and tweeted at a handful of reporters, favorited and retweeted. We targeted reporters we knew would try to be the first to publish and offered exclusive spokesperson quotes first. Having a few pre-drafted blogs or bylined articles also helped us stand out from others who were busy playing catch up and writing in real time.

It’s essential to point out that not every offering of the pre-approved quote/spokesperson resulted in coverage. Yes, we saw coverage numbers increase during the news cycle, but we knew that just because we had someone with something to say didn’t necessarily mean we’d get coverage.

In the end, we landed key coverage in outlets that were important to our clients and showcased their expertise. Overall, it’s been an exciting season of decisions from SCOTUS, and it will be interesting to see if we are able to apply the lessons learned this year to any cases that may be decided next year.

Theresa Masnik is account manager at SHIFT Communications. She has several years of experience working with clients in the healthcare and life science industries to establish, measure and achieve communications objectives. Follow her on Twitter here: @TMasnik