Hartford HealthCare President & CEO Jeffrey Flaks appears on WTNH on May 18, 2020.
Hartford HealthCare President & CEO Jeffrey Flaks appears on WTNH on May 18, 2020. (Screengrab from Hartford HealthCare’s Youtube channel)
TERRY COWGILL

Question: Whose is the most familiar face in Connecticut? Right now, it might be Gov. Ned Lamont. But I’m thinking that for most people, it’s probably a longtime on-air journalist such as Dennis House or Ann Nyberg. Or for his legendary and decades-long affinity for placing himself in front of television cameras, Sen. Richard Blumenthal.

Those three Connecticut celebrities might still be in the lead for most-recognized mugs in the state, but there is a newcomer nipping at their heels, and he’s not a journalist or a politician.

Unless you’ve been living in a cave since the pandemic began or simply do not have a television, you’d probably recognize Jeffrey Flaks if you saw him. You might not know that Flaks is president and CEO of Hartford HealthCare but his face would surely ring a bell because Flaks and the organization he leads seem to be everywhere from New Milford to New London and all points in between.

With seven acute-care hospitals, 26 urgent care centers, 30,000 employees, and $4.3 billion per year in operating revenues, Hartford HealthCare is one of the largest healthcare providers in Connecticut. Its chief rivals are Yale New Haven Health and Nuvance Health. Together, the big three account for nearly 70% of the state’s hospital infrastructure.

Most health care CEOs stay in the background. Typically, they let others execute marketing strategies and deal with the news media. Not Flaks, who makes a reported $2 million a year. He has turned into the Dick Blumenthal of the private sector, seemingly appearing on any mass media platform that will have him. And he’s good at it. He is knowledgeable, has a friendly face and, despite his lack of a medical degree, can explain health care issues in layman’s terms.

As is often the case with private-sector health care organizations, Hartford HealthCare has a large and talented marketing department with a huge budget. The team is aggressive in marketing the mothership and has been able to afford massive ad buys. They’re able to achieve news media placement that is the envy of smaller companies. 

And its profile expanded considerably after the COVID-19 pandemic reared its ugly head in March 2020. From the small to the big, it seems that HHC gets copious and favorable coverage. Its experts are interviewed on everything from COVID restrictions to cardiac ablation. Flaks often leads the charge, but doctors and other staff get lots of facetime as well.

But HHC has ventured into an area that, as a journalist, makes me quite uncomfortable. In executing its aggressive marketing strategy, HHC is pursuing a multipronged approach with an obvious emphasis on television. The idea is to flood the zone with the company’s brand and therefore make it seem ubiquitous and indispensable.

The company not only makes its employees available for interviews, which benefits news consumers and media outlets, but it produces infomercials that cast HHC in a positive light. You would expect that of advertising.

The problem, however, is that HHC’s TV advertising strategy has expanded to the point that it relies heavily on commercials designed to look like news segments. The company’s experts are often interviewed by journalists – or paid hosts who look like journalists or are former journalists – but ask softball questions. I first noticed this trend about a year ago. I figured it would go away as soon as the pandemic started to fade. I was wrong.

The problem is most pronounced during newscasts on the state’s four network affiliates. HHC’s marketing department knows that the audiences for those shows are interested in news and will therefore pay attention to something that looks like a news segment even if, in actuality, it is nothing but advertising.

I did a quick survey of some of the local Sunday talk shows last weekend. HHC had a presence on all three shows that I watched. On “CT-21,” the rebranded WFSB Sunday show formerly hosted by the aforementioned Dennis House, one HHC commercial segment featured an unnamed interviewer asking questions to a Connecticut man who injured his knee while hiking in New Hampshire and was finally brought to a Hartford HealthCare facility, where a surgeon performed miracles on him.

“How painful was it?” the interviewer asked. “It was painful,” the fully recovered man replied.

On Fox 61’s “The Real Story,” Flaks made an appearance. To her credit, host Jenn Bernstein did not merely lob softballs at the CEO. At one point, Bernstein asked Flaks whether, in hindsight, HHC would have done anything differently in dealing with the pandemic. Flaks looked a little surprised and promptly avoided the question.

On WTNH’s “Capitol Report,” an HHC commercial took the fake news a step further. The host of the segment was Rebecca Stewart, an extremely savvy HHC marketing executive and former Fox 61 news anchor. There were snippets of a Flaks speech and another of Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin – all with a gauzy overlay of newsy-sounding music and the ubiquitous HHC logo.

And get this: WTNH even has a page on its website called “Advances in Health,” filled with nothing but videos produced by you-know-who and featuring former WTNH Health Reporter Jocelyn Maminta. There is no indication on the page that this is advertising. The page itself is framed by HHC ads, though the station does not disclose anywhere whether the actual content is bought and paid for.

WFSB actually has a weekly show called “Medical Rounds.” HHC has managed to get its logo mixed with the show’s, literally blurring the lines between journalistic content and advertising. Compounding the indignity is that the WFSB shows are hosted by TV journalists who then ask friendly questions of the advertisers.

WVIT (a.k.a. NBC Connecticut) has a similar page on its site called, “Connect to Healthier.” To its credit, the station put a message at the top announcing that the content is “presented by Hartford HealthCare” and each video is marked as “sponsored.” WVIT’s more responsible approach might be a result of its ownership by a large media company that already has a clear and longstanding ethics policy.

HHC has been relentless in other media as well, often taking out full-page ads in newspapers, including the Republican American, which I read every day. 

Many of you are probably thinking: “Why does this columnist even care? Find something better to write about.”

Here’s the problem: The commercial spots are clearly trying to convince viewers that they’re watching news segments written and produced by real journalists whose mission is to get at the truth.

It also raises a troubling question: are Hartford HealthCare doctors and senior management booked so frequently as guests because HHC is a major television advertiser? I’d be surprised if explicit promises were made to that effect, but if an advertiser with a six-figure account calls up a producer and says one of the company’s executives is available for an interview, it can be hard to say no, and for the journalist it would be tempting to go easy on the advertiser.

Over the course of my career in reporting, I have often dealt with media relations executives in government and in the private sector. Most are terrific people but their goal is to protect their employer’s image, not to tell the full truth. I spent nine miserable years in fundraising and PR. The money was terrific but the lack of loyalty to truth is the major reason why I wasn’t any good at it.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been an HHC patient for about a year and a half and have been pleased with the service I’ve received. Furthermore, HHC is hardly alone in this practice of flooding the zone with advertising, disguising marketing as news and placing its experts and executives on television news shows at every turn. I just hate to see it happening in my own backyard.

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at PolitiConn and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at tcowgill90@wesleyan.edu.

The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.