Editor’s note: On June 13, Jeff Blackwood shared an open letter on why his company, Pathfinder Health Innovations, is leaving Kansas due to state policies’ effect on education, healthcare and people with developmental disabilities. Startland News was the first to report on the story, which soon after attracted national media attention.
The last month has been a roller coaster.
The open letter I posted about my company moving away from Kansas went viral. Within two days of publishing on our blog, the story had been picked up by national media and I was receiving requests for interviews from all across the country. Our e-mail notifications were blowing up with new and different articles derived from the original post.
At its core, the letter was a message to the people of Kansas about how individuals with developmental disabilities have suffered dramatically under the tax and policy changes implemented by Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration.
The most visible elements of this have been the privatization of Medicaid, the refusal of federal funds and the daily increasing pool of people unable to receive healthcare services. Brownback’s tax policies are disastrous, and few have seen a greater impact on their lives than those with developmental disabilities who are dependent on these funds. That’s why I wrote the letter.
Unfortunately, much of the media attention ignored my core message of what was actually happening as a result of Kansas’ policies, and focused more on bashing Brownback. After some reflection, there are a few key points I’ve learned about “going viral” that I feel are important to share.
Make a bold, compelling statement
There are so many blog posts written every day that it’s nearly impossible for them to stand out. If I had written a passive article about our move, it might have been picked up by a couple of local tech blogs, but that’s about it. You have to stand up, be bold, and shout your message to be heard. Know and understand all your stakeholders — customers, investors and employees — and make sure your message doesn’t detract from their interest in your business.
Back it up with facts.
If there’s one thing people should take away from my letter, it’s that it’s filled with facts. Facts speak louder than opinions. When asked by the media for a response, Brownback’s spokesperson LeAnn Hawley couldn’t dispute a single thing that was mentioned in my post. Instead, she tried to change the focus of the conversation by marginalizing the impact of my company leaving Kansas. Hawley said, “Kansas created over 17,000 new businesses in 2015.” While that may be true, the fact is that Kansas saw a net loss of 900 jobs during that same period. It’s easy to speculate that those new “businesses” are not creating jobs because they are, in fact, individuals creating LLCs so they can avoid paying income tax, just as the Brownback administration wanted.
Hone your message.
It became apparent that the media was focusing more on bashing Brownback than my core message of support for the developmentally disabled. So, I had to hone my message. I had to start including sound bites on why I wrote the letter, what impact the tax policies were having on the developmentally disabled, and why all of this mattered. Listen to the questions, and try to redirect the answers back to what is most meaningful for you and your message.
Understand and diffuse the haters.
While 99 percent of the response was positive, there were inevitably people that chose to view the story in a negative light. Article comment sections had people insisting the move was simply about the huge tax incentives we were receiving. The fact is that, while we are receiving tax incentives, they are minimal and being used so we can offer health insurance to our employees.
In a few instances, I responded directly to the individuals, but I also learned to include a specific point in subsequent interviews that counteracted the comments. You’re never going to be able to address all critics, but you can at least turn their talking points around and diminish their complaints.
Be gracious and appreciate the unexpected.
In the first three weeks, I was contacted multiple times a day by media sources. I accepted every request that came my way. That included an interview on Fox Business, a media channel which is not in my normal viewing repertoire. At first, I was told the interview would be on the radio. Cool. After I accepted, they came back and said, “My producer thinks the segment would have more impact if it was a debate.” That was not what I signed up for, but I knew I could handle it. When I got to the studio, I noticed there was a camera. Turns out the debate was now going to be on live, national television — and I hadn’t shaved that morning. I rolled with it, and now I have a great clip that I can share.
In addition, I knew we would get some increased visibility, so I decided to post a job opening on our site when I posted the open letter. Within the first 48 hours of my post, we had already received three times the number of resumes we received the last time we had an opening.
Probably the biggest benefit my company received was recognition and pride from our employees. We’re gathered with a common cause — to help individuals with autism — and they were excited and proud that our message was being heard nationwide. And they were able to share that recognition with their family and friends, increasing their pride in their work.
Now, the biggest question is: how do I do it again? Whenever it occurs, I think I’ll be better prepared.