Storytelling, Data and Personalization Help Debt-Forgiving Group Gain Notice

It's often the case, from startups to nonprofits, that explaining why something is innovative can exhaust a reporter (or potential donor). And that's before you get to the pitch!

In a fast-paced media landscape, cutting to the chase quickly is a priority. So, how do PR pros entice potential leads when the innovation is complex or technical (OK, read: snooze inducing)? The case of RIP Medical Debt is instructive.

The Set-up 

RIP is a donation-funded nonprofit. It purchases medical debt of patients living below the federal poverty level. These large portfolios are purchased for a fraction of their face value. Once it's made the purchase, RIP does something incredible. RIP abolishes the portfolio's individual debts. It sends letters to each person letting the individual know his or her debt or debts were erased at no cost to them. 

It’s an awesome model that turns the American debt industry on its head. Moreover, it empowers donors. Since the debt is purchased below its face value, one dollar donated abolishes $100 worth of medical debt.

Finally, there’s a counterweight to the American medical system, which too often drops enormous debt on people who can’t, and likely never can, pay them. 

The Hurdle

And yet, to understand what the nonprofit does, one has to dive into the debt ecosystem–which, like healthcare generally, is opaque by design.

When RIP was founded, in 2014, it struggled to raise money. Medical debt was not a topic du jour. Back in 2014, it was less on the radar than it is today.

Indeed, just this year the federal government pledged to tackle the medical debt crisis. Even the top three credit agencies promised to erase the majority of negative marks from medical debt on people’s credit scores.

Still, medical debt is not the hot issue at many cocktail parties.

To gain recognition, RIP's founders wrote a book about their model and were active on social media. Unfortunately, they were unable to break through the noise.

Eight years later, RIP's abolished nearly $7 billion worth of medical debt for more than 3.5 million people. Below are some lessons learned for contextualizing an innovative organization or company in a crowded space.

Tactical Lessons 

Find a hook: Lean into the company's core proposition. What initially excites you about the company? Call it the hook.  

Is the company solving the future of food or concentrating on climate change? Providing financial literacy to underserved groups? Democratizing wine for millennials?

Once you think you've found the hook, employ it consistently until it sticks. At RIP, it’s that one dollar donated abolishes $100 of face-value debt. So, $10 donated erases $1,000 of someone's medical debt.

RIP considered its hook an incredible philanthropic proposition that few nonprofits could claim. This hook became the pillar of RIP's messaging. 

Get out the message wide: In those early, lean days, RIP's founders penned a book, “The Patient, The Doctor and the Bill Collector.”  They provided a free copy to everyone in their orbit. In addition, they sent the book to legislators on Capitol Hill.

It was a RIP board member, a healthcare lawyer, who heard through the grapevine that “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver," the HBO series, was keen to dig into the topic of debt. It needed someone with know-how to facilitate a buy of medical debt. The board member knew exactly who to call.  It was kismet for the show and RIP. That episode has been viewed more than 17 million times. 

Use statistics: Data from trusted sources can do a lot of heavy lifting when it comes to contextualizing an issue. You can explain the intricacies of medical debt in the US and why abolishing it is important for days. Yet for the uninitiated, an eye-catching piece of research much more succinctly sets the table.

For example:

  • The American Journal of Medicine says nearly half of US cancer patients exhaust their entire life savings during their second year of treatment.
  •  Gallup reports nearly one-third of Americans didn't seek treatment for an ailment during the pandemic because they feared the cost.
  • Americans owe at minimum $195 billion of medical debt, despite 90 percent of the population being insured.

Far from being clinical, the right statistics can legitimize your pitch and be emotionally evocative.

Peg your pitch to a trend: During the early days of the pandemic many people saw RIP as a resource. As you can imagine, during this global crisis, the cost of medical treatment was enormous. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimated the average American COVID treatment bill, after insurance, at $20,000. Uninsured Americans faced COVID bills of $75,000.

However, it often takes years for medical debt to work its way through providers. As such, there wasn't an obvious way for RIP to purchase COVID-specific medical debt.

RIP could, though, help with medical debt of another group caught in the pandemic's wake.

The organization realized some of the medical debt it was buying belonged to frontline medical workers. Those same nurses, home health aids, pharmacists and social workers who received applause each evening in NY City. Highlighting that the brave people keeping society afloat also had amassed medical debt helped frame RIP's appeal for donations to its Helping COVID Heroes Fund.

Other Lessons 

When in doubt, make it personal: Compelling storytelling centers on people. Notice how John Oliver began his treatment of debt in the segment above with an example of a man, Bob Weinkauf, who was struggling to breathe in intensive care. His bill after insurance was $80,000.

When a company or organization performs a social good, provides on-demand dog walkers, changes how women freeze their eggs, etc. you have real people who can share their experience with the media. 

In January of 2020 RIP spoke with a nurse from Boston. RIP had relieved nearly $1,000 of her medical debt. It was a shocking revelation to find healthcare workers shouldering debt. The nurse later shared her story with the media. This interaction helped inspire RIP's Helping COVID Heroes Fund for frontline workers. 

Connecting real people with the media is an art: Everyone has different levels of comfort. You must weigh each case against the media opportunity (is it a phone interview vs. broadcast?). But the impact is profound.

Moreover, journalists almost always seek a human angle. When you are able to provide one, you not only gain coverage but build goodwill and influence the larger narrative. 

The announcement from the White House in April underscores how much traction the issue has gained (thankfully) and why it’s essential RIP and others keep the drumbeat going. 

Daniel Lempert is VP, communication, RIP Medical Debt