Highlight Emotional Aspects of Medical Stories to Catch People Staffer

January 17, 2014

You need a human-interest angle for coverage in People, but that alone isn’t enough. "It has to be extraordinary — one of those stories you look at and say ‘wow,’" explains staff writer Nicole Weisensee Egan (pron. "wise en see"). And though she’s interested in cutting-edge medical treatments, "it’s really more about the unique and emotional personal relationships of the people we write about and how their lives have been transformed by something that happened to them."

For example, she points to a story from last year about a couple who met and eventually married after disfiguring accidents. The groom had undergone the nation’s first full face transplant after being electrocuted; the bride had suffered serious burns over most of her body after a car wreck. Such stories, "about the unique bonds between two people who met because of a medical condition" are "always of interest," she says, as are "cutting-edge fertility stories."

She’s also written about the nation’s first double-hand transplant and a 38-year-old North Carolina woman who was treated with a cooling technique known as therapeutic hypothermia after suffering cardiac arrest. "She was dead for 25 minutes," Egan notes.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that you need a groundbreaking procedure to catch her eye, but "there has to be an emotional story" at the core, she advises. "That’s what People is all about."

Focus: People (circ: 3.6 million/weekly) covers celebrities and human-interest stories, including those involving patients. Egan tends to focus on the latter. She won’t close the door on celebrity health stories, but "that might be more a People.com story," she says. "Space in the magazine is really at a premium. That’s why the bar is so high. We don’t do a lot of [stories], but when we do, we want them to be the best of the best."

Based in the Philadelphia area, she often queries PR reps at local hospitals for leads. But "I will go anywhere for a great story," she says.

Best approach: The ideal PR pro, she says, is someone who "comes to me with a pitch that they are almost completely sure we’re going to want." For example, she points to a pitch from Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia that led to a piece about a baby born with half a heart. "They knew it was a People story," she says. And they had already lined up the folks she needed to interview.

On the other hand, she might express interest in a story, only to see a lack of follow-through. "I’m the one who has to keep going back to them and reminding them that I’m still interested. I shouldn’t have to be nudging them constantly to see what’s going on."

Keep in mind: "People is the magazine you most often see in hospitals and waiting rooms throughout the country," she says. "It has 43 million readers. It’s one you’d think every hospital in the country would want their doctors to be in."

Getting ink: "We cannot do a story without a person to wrap it around," she advises. Beyond that, "I’m really looking for stories that [readers] would go out and tell their friends about, and their friends would say, ‘that’s really amazing.’" She offers these additional tips:

• Find the story beyond the procedure — Often it’s not a treatment that gets her attention, but a compelling personal story tied to the procedure. For example, "heart transplants in and of themselves aren’t all that compelling," she says. "But we had a one-page story on two heart transplant candidates in Texas who fell in love. That’s a really sweet story. It’s not the heart transplant, it’s that extra ‘what happens’ as a result of it." Another example was "two families that bonded over their children having the same illness."

Egan has a personal interest in clinical trials, but again, any drug or device "would have to be really amazing" to catch her attention, she says. "I’d look at it, but I’d have to see specifics." Still, "I always thought it would be interesting to follow an amazing drug through the clinical trial process." For example, "they’re doing so many things with autism these days."

• Offer a unique angle — "Everyone’s done the ‘sperm donor with 150 kids’ story," but Egan wrote about a mom whose sperm donor had a potentially fatal genetic heart defect. "She found out just because of her own detective work in trying to track him down, and it turned out that he’d had something like 35 kids, and they all needed to be tested."

• Query your doctors for patient stories — "What I think PR people [at hospitals] should do more is send periodic emails to their doctors and say ‘Here’s what this reporter is looking for. Do you have an extraordinary patient?’ I know there are amazing stories out there. I’m not seeing them and I’m eager to see them. But it can’t just be ‘this study came out and here’s the finding.’"

• Be sure patients aren’t camera shy — "It has to be something where we can tell the story visually," she says, and this means that the person at the core of the story should be willing to be photographed.

• Suggest experts for sidebars — In some cases, stories will be accompanied by sidebars providing background on the condition. In these, "we do quote experts," she says. Typically, she’ll try to find her own, but she doesn’t mind pitches pointing her to the top experts in specific fields.

• Set realistic expectations — but don’t be discouraged — "For every 10 stories I pitch to my editor, I get maybe one [assignment]," she notes. "It’s just the nature of the beast. I hope you don’t get discouraged that it’s a high bar." Still, "we’re hungry for these stories."

Pitch: Reach her via email at nicole_egan@peoplemag.com. "It doesn’t have to be long — two or three paragraphs," she says. Be sure to include a descriptive subject line, such as "Amazing Face Transplant" or "Amazing Personal Story," and tailor the pitch. "I don’t want the standard press release about it," she advises.

She often travels and would rather not get phone calls. "I do read all my emails," she says. "If you don’t hear back and want to nudge me in a week or two, you can email me."

Nicki Egan:
The Daily Beast  Features