A Conversation with Telum Media: Exploring Healthcare PR: What’s Next?

Healthcare is a personal topic, a crucial component of public policy and a relevant part of the economy - all at the same time. The complexity and sensitivity of this sector brings about a slew of challenges for communicators working in this industry. Telum caught up with JJ Lee, Healthcare Director at WE Communications and Emma Thompson, Managing Partner at Spurwing Communications to find out more about the tricky parts in healthcare comms work and their experience in the industry.

From biotech research companies to pharmaceuticals, medical device companies and NGOs, the healthcare sector is still one of the fastest growing industries to invest in 2018. Furthermore, it remains a relevant sector, with topics on breakthrough medical discoveries, public health scares and the politics of affordable healthcare on consumers’ minds, keeping the international and national agenda busy.

JJ Lee points out that healthcare firms are increasingly engaging in meaningful public discourse through their communications efforts. She states, “We all recognise healthcare’s potential for transformative change with real human impact. Perhaps due to fact that we’ve all been communicating this so well, the heat has really turned up on companies and their messaging.”

Emma Thompson notes that as one of the most complex and highly regulated industries, healthcare PR is particularly tricky. It is also fraught with limitations, with stringent policies in place in most markets to ensure quality control and strict advertising and promotional regulations. Furthermore, the multibillion dollar enterprise is also crisis laden due to the sensitives and personal emotions involved.

“Working with a PR firm that understands the regulatory environment, nuances of the development pathways, acronyms and quirks of the industry is invaluable to healthcare companies. It is down to us to know the nuances of the sector and translate complex scientific research into a compelling set of key messages.”

WE’s Brands in Motion revealed that while these external factors may feel insurmountable, they also present an opportunity for companies to respond to these forces to move forward and it’s the job of the comms professionals to get them there. This is especially so for healthcare companies, which have recently become more comfortable with non-traditional communications strategies.

From an agency’s point of view, healthcare is a “challenging space, where you’re straddling the line between regulatory compliance (what can a healthcare campaign actually say?), consultants (in B2B comms), and crisis managers,” JJ states.

Increasing intersectionality across disciplines

In recent years, digital is driving massive change in the healthcare sector. Innovations that are better, cheaper and more customisable are creating multiple verticals that intersect and overlap with other disciplines. These new developments are empowering consumers to take control of their health and exert power over healthcare companies, leaving the traditional product-centric comms model behind.

The intersectionality is also making the one size fits all approach very ineffective. Reaching out to healthcare trade media is no longer sufficient. Yet, outside of trade media, many journalists are not experts in the field of healthcare, Emma notes.

Hence, Emma emphasises the importance of engaging journalists in in a way that is quickly and easily understood, identifying what is truly newsworthy and knowing what the key journalists will need in terms of supporting materials and case studies. By ensuring that complex scientific concepts are expressed in relatable everyday terms and woven into evocative narratives of the target audience, the content will then resonate with the readers.

“Healthcare is something that is incredibly personal to all of us, therefore, it stands to reason that journalists will only write about the health issues that impact their readership,” Emma adds.

JJ echoes that, “Relevance isn’t about who said it first, or even who said it best. It’s about who said it at just the right moment, with the proper context.”

Furthermore, these useful, easy-to-understand information has to be accessible to its audience by targeting the right channels. For instance, Bill Gates’ announcement about his partnership earlier this year with cardiologist Atul Gawande around childhood vaccinations caught JJ’s attention. JJ felt that the Gates Foundation in general does a fantastic job of self-publishing in the digital space. “They are able to show the world their own longitudinal data, making sure that no moment or program goes unrecorded. That’s so valuable in this day and age where even physicians are more likely to get information from a microsite on their device than make time to read an academic journal.”

Lack of trust

There is also a lack of trust in the industry. The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer reveals that only 65 per cent of the population trusts the healthcare sector. As a result, it makes it more difficult to engage stakeholders through traditional channels and methods. To establish trust and build a positive reputation, healthcare companies have to demonstrate a sense of transparency and accountability and they are turning to social media, digital channels, personal endorsements and even blockchain technology.

“A device manufacturer, pharma company, or hospital can no longer just lean on the tried-and-true pillars of ‘value based’, ‘quality’, and ‘patient-centric’ without getting a good deal of push back on what exactly this means and what proof points they can offer,” JJ claims. “Brands need to be a lot sharper in owning these key terms as they evolve.”

New era of healthcare comms?

New opportunities brought about by ground-breaking tech developments and partnerships are transforming the industry into an innovative and exciting space. Many of these new opportunities rely on healthcare companies stepping out of their corner as a niche topic and becoming more involved in the public discourse. So, as global healthcare continues to be disrupted, the future of healthcare companies and healthcare comms professionals lies in being proactive in creating new strategies and embracing transparency in a highly regulated environment to stay ahead of the game.

This post was originally published by Telum Media.

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