WHPRMS March Blog: Awareness Months

How do you handle awareness months?

 Editor’s note: As a way to generate discussion and ideas, and to increase member involvement and offerings, we are now offering a WHPRMS bi-monthly blog. Mike Wiltse, a WHPRMS member for two years and recipient of the 2016 Carol Mehlberg Award, is taking on this new role.

 Mike is associate director of communications for Journey Mental Health Center. His marketing and public relations background spans 23 years, 16 of them in health care. He is excited to be sharing his thoughts about health care marketing and public relations.

When the manager of a department at your hospital or health care system walks into your office unexpectedly and says “March is Colon Cancer Awareness Month and we’d like to promote this to the community …” what do you tell her?

Health care professionals are passionate about the work they do, the families they help, and the lives they save. But this can be a tricky situation, particularly if you have wiggle room in your marketing budget but it’s not an organizational priority.

And it can be become a downright awkward situation if the answer is “no.”

We’ve all had, or have, really passionate department managers, physicians and staff who strongly believe in the work they do, and for good measure. After all, they improve people’s health and quality of life.

 “Promoting Colon Cancer month will promote my business and help me achieve my financial goals,” she says.

 Your face shows you want to help her, but you remain silent, so she pleads with you.

“We need marketing … we need promotion … and now is the ideal time!”

That may very well be true, but it may not be. Market forces such as new competition, competitor pricing differential, population shifts in your city, and service delivery challenges may all be reasons to steer clear of promoting a product line externally during an awareness month.

To illustrate my point, I once worked in the Marketing Department of a large health care system that had five centers of excellence and two received the lion’s share of the budget. Every so often, managers would ask me to allocate marketing dollars to their department.

One day, the manager of the Optometry Department stopped by my office seeking advertising dollars.

“It’s Better Eye Care Month, and I’d like a campaign featuring the Optometry Department,” she said. “There has been a downward trajectory over the last few years, and I really think we could generate business out of an advertising campaign this month”

Unfortunately, we couldn’t compete with the Len’s Crafters and Eye Marts of the world. They had better hours, better access, and heck … they didn’t close over the lunch hour or leave at 5 p.m.

The messaging simply didn’t fit in with the organization’s overall brand message, so the timing wasn’t right.

While it’s not solely our place as marketers and communicators to make the determination of where marketing dollars will be allocated, we need a seat at the table and we need to be involved in the decision making process.


Marketing dollars shouldn’t be allocated on a “feeling” or a hunch. There are very valid reasons why we choose to spend dollars on our major product lines:

  • The high-level strategic business plan.
  • The market need for the product or service.
  • The organization’s brand messaging and tie-in to the service line.
  • Marketing budgets
  • Staff time and resources.
  • ROI or profits.

Saying “no” to service line marketing or advertising is never easy, but it’s a lot easier when you have solid reasons why it’s not a smart investment at the time.

High-level strategic business plans are imperative and really dictate where your money will be spent in most cases. Some health care organizations are more flexible with their budgets than others, so you may have room for secondary campaigns. With that said, I urge you to consider all your options of where you will be allocating your dollars at the beginning of the year. It will make your life a lot easier so you can focus on what is most important.

There can be obvious reasons why we don’t market a product line, as noted above, and communicating them to the entire management team will save you from a lot of headaches.


It’s hard telling department managers, physicians, and staff members that their work is viewed as less important than other programs that help build brand muscle.

So how do we recognize the important role these departments play in our patients’ lives? Just because we can’t allocate money toward TV, billboards, radio, and print campaigns doesn’t’ mean we can’t promote the importance of the month and the role our health care providers play in making people healthy and whole again.

Ideas for inexpensive external campaigns promoting an awareness month include:

MEDIA PITCHES: This is the most obvious form of free advertising, but it’s one of the more effective because health care consumers are more likely to view a media story as unbiased than a paid ad. Pretty simple. The key is finding a unique and compelling patient recovery story. Media will eat these stories right out of your hand, if pitched correctly. Always give consideration to they type of media you want to attract. Each media has their advantages and disadvantages.

SOCIAL MEDIA: Video sells. Produce and place short 15 second to 1-minute video clips on your organization’s social media and web sites featuring testimonials and recovery stories. As a rule of thumb, I wouldn’t go longer than one minute for this type of campaign. A Q-&-A session with doctors on Facebook Live is a cool way to generate interest. Note, video stories can be repurposed, made longer for blogs, or packaged together if you can edit the footage.

EVENTS: Setting up a booth at health fair can be an easy and relatively inexpensive way to promote a product line. Meeting nurses and physicians in-person is an old fashioned way to increase awareness and build identity.

E-NEWSLETTERS/COMMUNITY NEWSLETTERS: Does your company produce an e-newsletter or community newsletter? If so, write a brief article about the observance featuring a patient success story!

Ideas for internal campaigns include:

ELEVATOR CASES: Working in health care, you most likely have elevators. Use them. Grab someone’s attention for 5 or 10 seconds. Create cool posters and information materials that are quick reads – kind of like a billboard.

WAITING ROOM TV MONITORS: Yes, people play on their cell phone while waiting for their doctor, but it’s still a low-cost way to promote messages in-house that reach external customers.

TABLE TOP CARDS: If your hospital or work has a cafeteria, create folded info cards and place them in your cafeteria or on waiting room tables.

FOLDING BANNERS/INFO TABLES: Be sure to have an information table with materials highlighting key facts about the month, and why check up’s are important. Keep the table stocked with takeaway items like brochures. Assign a person to the booth for an hour or two every day to try to answer questions of passer-byes. Also, use a couple of roll-up banners to dress up the table and make it visually appealing.

INTERNAL NEWSLETTER: Promoting the event to fellow co-workers outside the department is important, because in large organizations, people will see it, and remember it if the subject comes up in conversation outside of work. Whether your hospital employs 200 or 2,000 people, then you have 200 or 2,000 ambassadors.

RIBBONS, BUTTONS: Ribbons and buttons can be an effective way to keep employee top-of-mind awareness on the special month.

So how do you approach awareness months? What do you do when a manager or physician comes to you with a request? Do you have a process in place? Send me your thoughts (michael.wiltse@journeymhc.org) and I can re-cap some of the best answers in our next issue. You can remain anonymous if you choose.