OP-ED | Medical Behemoth’s Marketing Strategy Raises Troubling Questions

Hartford HealthCare President & CEO Jeffrey Flaks seems on WTNH on May 18, 2020. (Screengrab from Hartford HealthCare’s Youtube channel)


Question: Whose is probably the most acquainted face in Connecticut? Right now, it is likely to be Gov. Ned Lamont. But I’m considering that for most individuals, it’s most likely a longtime on-air journalist reminiscent of Dennis House or Ann Nyberg. Or for his legendary and decades-long affinity for putting himself in entrance of tv cameras, Sen. Richard Blumenthal.

Those three Connecticut celebrities may nonetheless be within the lead for most-recognized mugs within the state, however there’s a newcomer nipping at their heels, and he’s not a journalist or a politician.

Unless you’ve been dwelling in a cave because the pandemic started or just shouldn’t have a tv, you’d most likely acknowledge Jeffrey Flaks if you happen to noticed him. You won’t know that Flaks is president and CEO of Hartford HealthCare however his face would certainly ring a bell as a result of Flaks and the group he leads appear to be all over the place from New Milford to New London and all factors in between.

With seven acute-care hospitals, 26 pressing care facilities, 30,000 staff, and $4.3 billion per 12 months in working revenues, Hartford HealthCare is among the largest healthcare suppliers in Connecticut. Its chief rivals are Yale New Haven Health and Nuvance Health. Together, the massive three account for practically 70% of the state’s hospital infrastructure.

Most well being care CEOs keep within the background. Typically, they let others execute advertising methods and take care of the information media. Not Flaks, who makes a reported $2 million a 12 months. He has become the Dick Blumenthal of the non-public sector, seemingly showing on any mass media platform that can have him. And he’s good at it. He is educated, has a pleasant face and, regardless of his lack of a medical diploma, can clarify well being care points in layman’s phrases.

As is commonly the case with private-sector well being care organizations, Hartford HealthCare has a big and gifted advertising division with an enormous price range. The staff is aggressive in advertising the mothership and has been capable of afford huge advert buys. They’re capable of obtain information media placement that’s the envy of smaller firms. 

And its profile expanded significantly after the COVID-19 pandemic reared its ugly head in March 2020. From the small to the massive, it appears that evidently HHC will get copious and favorable protection. Its consultants are interviewed on every little thing from COVID restrictions to cardiac ablation. Flaks usually leads the cost, however medical doctors and different workers get a lot of facetime as nicely.

But HHC has ventured into an space that, as a journalist, makes me fairly uncomfortable. In executing its aggressive advertising technique, HHC is pursuing a multipronged strategy with an apparent emphasis on tv. The concept is to flood the zone with the corporate’s model and due to this fact make it appear ubiquitous and indispensable.

The firm not solely makes its staff obtainable for interviews, which advantages information customers and media shops, however it produces infomercials that solid HHC in a optimistic mild. You would count on that of promoting.

The downside, nevertheless, is that HHC’s TV promoting technique has expanded to the purpose that it depends closely on commercials designed to seem like information segments. The firm’s consultants are sometimes interviewed by journalists – or paid hosts who seem like journalists or are former journalists – however ask softball questions. I first observed this pattern a few 12 months in the past. I figured it could go away as quickly because the pandemic began to fade. I used to be flawed.

The downside is most pronounced throughout newscasts on the state’s 4 community associates. HHC’s advertising division is aware of that the audiences for these exhibits are inquisitive about information and can due to this fact take note of one thing that appears like a information phase even when, essentially, it’s nothing however promoting.

I did a fast survey of among the native Sunday speak exhibits final weekend. HHC had a presence on all three exhibits that I watched. On “CT-21,” the rebranded WFSB Sunday present previously hosted by the aforementioned Dennis House, one HHC business phase featured an unnamed interviewer asking inquiries to a Connecticut man who injured his knee whereas climbing in New Hampshire and was lastly dropped at a Hartford HealthCare facility, the place a surgeon carried out miracles on him.

“How painful was it?” the interviewer requested. “It was painful,” the absolutely recovered man replied.

On Fox 61’s “The Real Story,” Flaks made an look. To her credit score, host Jenn Bernstein didn’t merely lob softballs on the CEO. At one level, Bernstein requested Flaks whether or not, in hindsight, HHC would have finished something otherwise in coping with the pandemic. Flaks seemed a bit of shocked and promptly prevented the query.

On WTNH’s “Capitol Report,” an HHC business took the pretend information a step additional. The host of the phase was Rebecca Stewart, a particularly savvy HHC advertising govt and former Fox 61 information anchor. There had been snippets of a Flaks speech and one other of Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin – all with a gauzy overlay of newsy-sounding music and the ever present HHC emblem.

And get this: WTNH even has a web page on its web site referred to as “Advances in Health,” stuffed with nothing however movies produced by you-know-who and that includes former WTNH Health Reporter Jocelyn Maminta. There isn’t any indication on the web page that that is promoting. The web page itself is framed by HHC advertisements, although the station doesn’t disclose anyplace whether or not the precise content material is purchased and paid for.

WFSB truly has a weekly present referred to as “Medical Rounds.” HHC has managed to get its emblem combined with the present’s, actually blurring the strains between journalistic content material and promoting. Compounding the indignity is that the WFSB exhibits are hosted by TV journalists who then ask pleasant questions of the advertisers.

WVIT (a.ok.a. NBC Connecticut) has an identical web page on its web site referred to as, “Connect to Healthier.” To its credit score, the station put a message on the prime saying that the content material is “introduced by Hartford HealthCare” and every video is marked as “sponsored.” WVIT’s extra accountable strategy is likely to be a results of its possession by a big media firm that already has a transparent and longstanding ethics coverage.

HHC has been relentless in different media as nicely, usually taking out full-page advertisements in newspapers, together with the Republican American, which I learn daily. 

Many of you’re most likely considering: “Why does this columnist even care? Find one thing higher to write down about.”

Here’s the issue: The business spots are clearly making an attempt to persuade viewers that they’re watching information segments written and produced by actual journalists whose mission is to get on the reality.

It additionally raises a troubling query: are Hartford HealthCare medical doctors and senior administration booked so incessantly as company as a result of HHC is a significant tv advertiser? I’d be shocked if specific guarantees had been made to that impact, but when an advertiser with a six-figure account calls up a producer and says one of many firm’s executives is offered for an interview, it may be arduous to say no, and for the journalist it could be tempting to go straightforward on the advertiser.

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Over the course of my profession in reporting, I’ve usually handled media relations executives in authorities and within the non-public sector. Most are terrific folks however their objective is to guard their employer’s picture, to not inform the total reality. I spent 9 depressing years in fundraising and PR. The cash was terrific however the lack of loyalty to reality is the key purpose why I wasn’t any good at it.

Don’t get me flawed. I’ve been an HHC affected person for a few 12 months and a half and have been happy with the service I’ve acquired. Furthermore, HHC is hardly alone on this observe of flooding the zone with promoting, disguising advertising as information and putting its consultants and executives on tv information exhibits at each flip. I simply hate to see it taking place in my very own yard.

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at PolitiConn and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or e-mail him at [email protected]

The views, opinions, positions, or methods expressed by the writer are theirs alone, and don’t essentially replicate the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.


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