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Paul and Julie’s Amazing Adventure Or How We Got on the Today Show

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Earlier this year, Julie (my sister and co-author) and I were on NBC’s Today Show for an entire week. We appeared live in the studio with Katie Couric for a five-part series on being a smart medical consumer. The segments were based on our latest book, Lerner’s Consumer Guide to Health Care: How to Get the Best Health Care for Less (Lerner Communications, distributed by IPG, original trade paperback, $13.95).

People keep asking me how this happened, so here’s the story.

The book was published in September 2000. We had hired an excellent publicist, Scott Manning (who is based in New York City and has his own firm, Scott Manning & Associates), to do a full promotional campaign. We had worked with Scott on our first book (Lerner Survey of Health Care in New York) and liked him. The new campaign went well, garnering us positive reviews in Publishers Weekly and Library Journal, and some nice local media.

But we hadn’t been able to crack any major national media. That frustrated Scott and us, because we had a timely subject, compelling speakers (Julie is a cancer survivor, I’m a former AIDS advocate, and we’re both media trained), and a publicist with good contacts. Scott and I talked about this and had to accept that sometimes things just don’t go your way with the media. Scott was especially frustrated that he hadn’t been able to get us on a morning show. He had found strong interest from producers he knew at both Today and the CBS Early Show, but the idea had been vetoed at the executive producer level, where the real shots are called.

Scott and I agreed to keep in touch, and I got back to other aspects of our business. Fortunately the new book was moving well, partly because of very strong library sales (we love Library Journal!). We went to a second printing in early January.

On Tuesday February 20, I was focused on personal matters. I didn’t even answer the first phone call of the day, which came in at about 8:30 a.m. Seattle time, letting it go to voice mail. When I picked up the message a half-hour later, this is what I heard (I’ve kept the message on my answering machine, so I know exactly what it said): “Paul, it’s Scott Manning. I have unbelievable news! Sit down. This is not a joke. Not only does the Today Show want you next week, they want you for a five-part series. They want you LIVE Monday through Friday next week. I am in such shock, I can’t tell you. I don’t care what you’re doing next week, you’re dropping everything and you’re coming to New York! So call me! This is AMAZING. Talk to you soon!”

I was more astonished than Scott! My next call was to a producer at Today, then I called Julie, then our distributor, and finally, United Airlines. That Saturday, I was on the first plane to New York, and Monday at 7 a.m., a limo took me and Julie to the NBC Studios at Rockefeller Center.

 

By that time, we were prepared, having worked closely with two producers at Today on the five segments, how the segments would be laid out, and what “top points” would be put on the screen. (All media love lists, if you haven’t noticed.) Even so, both Julie and I were nervous. We were going to be on national television, live, five mornings in a row, in front of millions of people! But we counseled each other, “Let’s just go in and talk about what we know, and have a nice discussion with Katie.” And that’s what we did.

 

When it was all said and done, the experience was wonderful. It was stressful, yes, and lots of work. But we felt that we did quite well, and the people at Today seemed happy with the segments. We reached enormous numbers of people, and at the beginning of each segment, Katie Couric said the name of our book, and the front cover appeared on the screen.

 

The people who work at Today were a big part of the reason it was such a good experience. Many of us have done media interviews where you’re hustled in, asked a few questions by someone ill-informed about your work, and then hustled out. Not at Today. The people there could not have been nicer to us. Everyone was super-professional. Katie Couric even spoke to us on-air about her husband, who died of colon cancer. Ann Curry actually came over and introduced herself to us! The producers were helpful and efficient.

All the exposure has had positive results, as you can imagine. As a direct result of the interviews, we sold more than 1,000 copies of the book and went back to press for a third printing (with a gold sunburst on the front cover saying, “As Seen on the Today Show”). We also received requests to give speeches and presentations about getting the best health care (we have been trying to expand our paid speaking engagements), and I even got a spot on a one-hour special that my local public television station did!

We paid Video Monitoring Service to tape all of the segments and quickly made duplicates showing off our half-hour of national television exposure. We’ll be able to use those tapes for years as we establish ourselves as leading health care advocates and do more media, speaking, books, and other projects. I’ve already sent a copy of the video and a book to two producers at Oprah.

Here are the lessons I’ve learned from this experience, and previous work, that may be helpful to other people:

1. Hire an experienced publicist if you have a book with national reach and can pay the fee. Yes, it’s expensive, but marketing is the key to almost everything these days. I have a marketing background and could have done a lot of the publicity myself, but I recognized that when you hire a good publicist, you’re hiring the publicist’s experience and contacts cultivated for many years. If I had sent a book with a press kit to the Today Show, it would have gone into a pile and maybe not even been opened. But Scott was able to send it to a producer he knew very well, and then to make follow-up calls saying, “Don’t you think they would be good for Today?” Even after we had been turned down by the executive producers at Today, Scott kept mentioning the book to his contact. And eventually, there were new top producers at Today, and the subject of health consumers came up again-and we got a phone call.

2. Be as professional and timely as you can be. As soon as I spoke to a producer at Today, I could tell that these were incredibly busy people who worked remarkably fast. So I did what I could to meet their energy level and to do everything they asked as quickly and enthusiastically as possible. That wasn’t always easy, because I had to rearrange my life for a last-minute trip to New York. But I knew that there were dozens of other authors they could use if we didn’t come through.

 

3. Love your book and tell people why. People respect passion, and that’s what the media are looking for. You have to convey why anyone should give a damn about what you’re saying. Julie and I do this-we’re both passionate about helping individuals get the best health care by getting around the current mess of the medical bureaucracy. But even we have to work on honing our message and thinking about why anyone should pay attention to us. We’re always trying to put ourselves in the mind of the audience.

 

4. Relax. That might sound hard to do after everything else I’ve said. And it is hard, but it’s important. When you’re in front of media, you want to look relaxed and confident, even if you feel nervous and sweaty. Julie and I got media training when our first book came out, and I’ve gotten media training as part of previous jobs. It’s invaluable. Before the Today Show segments, Julie and I did everything from tell each other jokes to breathing and vocal exercises to get warmed up for the interviews. By the end of the week, we were so relaxed that we barely had to prepare-and it shows on the tape of the later segments. You do want to sound like an expert, but you also want people to like you and your message. Being relaxed and having a sense of humor helps a lot.

 

5. Be relentless. Keep pushing, keep promoting, keep calling people, and never give up. Our biggest publicity break before the Today Show came after we did a reading for our first book at a small bookstore in New York City. Only a handful of people came, which was really disappointing, and we debated whether it was worth doing readings. But a couple of weeks later, we got a call from a reporter at The New York Times. Her editor had seen a listing for our event in a free weekly paper and told the reporter to look into us. We wound up getting a terrific article. And I’m sure that being in The New York Times helped get us on the Today Show.

 

I hope that all of your publicity will go well too. Now, does anyone have more tips for getting on Oprah?

 

For more information on Paul Lerner’s projects, go to www.LernerHealth.com. Paul can be reached at LernerComm@aol.com or 206/328-7650. Lerner Communications, Ltd., has published the books “Lerner’s Consumer Guide to Health Care” and “Lerner Survey of Health Care in New York,” as well as the timely new booklet, “40 Ways to Save Money on Medical Care and Prescription Drugs.” Paul and Julie also speak and give workshops around the nation on health care.

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