Guest post: Letters to the editor do matter

By Brad Dodge on July 20th, 2009

Alden Solovy, executive editor of Hospitals & Health Networks and associate publisher for the Journals of the American Hospital Association, shares his thoughts on the power of inspirational stories and the connections that can be made through letters.

Connection. Understanding. Celebration. Health care workers—slogging through the necessary, rewarding but difficult work of quality and safety initiatives, while operating in strained financial times and still accomplishing the daily tasks of patient care—continue to yearn for stories of inspiration and hope. Call it a need for the good news. Call it the desire to reconnect with the heart and soul of the sacred work of care. Call it seeking a source of inspiration for the old passion, a source of new energy for the old commitment to this calling. There appears to be an insatiable thirst for stories of hope and compassion emanating from the halls of the hospital. Case-in-point: in April, Hospitals & Health Networks Weekly published a column that received more letters and e-mails than any other single article I’ve ever written. Perhaps more than all of them combined. The column tells the story of an accident, a tragedy, the death of a mother and the amazing care provided by one hospital to one family. Mine.

Some of the letters came to me personally, some to the magazine. In all, more than 100 e-mail responses and nearly the same number of handwritten notes. All that came in response to one single column.

I was flabbergasted, but shouldn’t have been. In more than a decade writing columns for Hospitals & Health Networks, the ones designed to inspire health care leaders always received the greatest number of responses. Letters to the editor matter. We read them, especially those with thoughtful messages and constructive criticism. We pay attention to them. They signal reader interest and engagement in the magazine. Letters to the editor are the publishing equivalent of the grassroots responses that politicians in our nation’s Capitol rely on as a barometer of their constituents’ concerns. As a result, letters are a powerful feedback tool. Surprisingly, many corporate marketers and public relations organizations take them for granted.

A good letter from a corporate CEO will almost invariably be published. It can also lead to a call from the editor for more information or background, a future request for a bylined column and the beginning of a meaningful relationship with the magazine’s editorial staff. One letter to me led to a nearly six year e-mail dialogue with a hospital CEO. Until he retired, he was among the handful of hospital executives I used to test ideas. Another letter led to a friendship with a health care consultant that, in turn, brought him a variety of introductions leading to speaking engagements and prospective clients. Admittedly, only a handful of letters lead to long-term relationships, but they should be part of an overall communications strategy, especially when an organization can show passion and leadership.