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Change the conversation in healthcare PR

How should healthcare public relations adapt to today’s integrated, social, multimedia, fast-paced, global environment?

Change the conversation in healthcare PR

When asked the question “What should be the goal of public relations programmes?”, many communications specialists would say something along the lines of, “shaping perceptions of our stakeholders to influence behaviours”. It's an interesting question, as we would argue that there needs to be a shift away from seeking to influence perceptions directly, towards seeking to influence conversations and ideally spark new ones.

In today's integrated, social, multimedia, fast-paced and global environment, what people think is continuously evolving and driven – in no small part – by the conversations they take part in, observe and initiate. So, to influence stakeholder behaviour we need to initiate, be part of and influence these discussions.

The form a conversation takes today is very different from that even five years ago. Conversations are happening in multiple media, real-time across multiple countries – not just by the 'water-cooler', on your break or down the pub. People's opinion on something can change in minutes and spread almost instantly around the world.

This speed of change and the need to evolve and react in an increasingly limited window of opportunity creates challenges for any communications campaign, and particularly with programmes in the highly regulated pharmaceutical and medical device industries. So, how should our approach to public relations adapt and seek to deliver on the goal of changing conversations?

1. Who should we talk to?
Communications experts across industries are adopting an advocacy approach, something the healthcare industry has been doing for some time. In an inherently social and highly linked environment, the influence of anyone with a salesman or maven tendency (ref. Malcolm Gladwell's Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference) has a much broader reach and quicker uptake than ever before.

The principles of spider (or influence) mapping, once confined only in the online space, is becoming a standard part of identifying advocates – mapping both influence and connectivity. The challenge is then to:

a) Marry online influence with traditional stakeholder mapping approaches

b) Measure advocate influence even within specialist and close-knit communities (particularly poignant in certain disease areas).

Thankfully many journalists, key opinion leaders (KOLs) and patient advocates are equally prolific across off- and online sources, so their influence is easier to ascertain.

Critically then, we need to look beyond traditional influencers (journalist, KOLs, patient groups), keep track of their degree of influence and on whom, and consider who is influencing the influencers.

2. What are they already talking about?
It's important to recognise that one conversation is now made up of both verbal and non-verbal communications. Conversations that might start as a tweet, SMS message or Facebook post quickly progress through and spread to other media. Just look at how Facebook is trying to integrate SMS with Facebook messaging on mobile devices.

The multi-channel, interactive ways in which we now engage friends, colleagues and digest news show how integrated traditional and newer channels are to conversations. A high interest piece of news or conversation picked up initially through social media is validated from an established or respected source or channel (such as BBC website, TV or radio) station, before being added to/commented on through a social channel. 

Interestingly, it is our observation that – at some point – a verbal interaction is an essential part of the conversation. Try taking away any teenager's mobile and replacing it entirely with a laptop or tablet and see what reaction you get. 

While sources such as LinkedIn or Twitter give you a window on what's hot with your connections and the general public, it does not tell what they are reading and talking about in traditional channels. Traditional market research combined with conversation analytics does help – but doesn't solve the challenge of the rate of change of conversation.

3. How should we reach them?
As an industry, the adoption of social media (or lack of, compared to other sectors) have been discussed ad infinitum. What some fail to realise is that, whether we want them to or not, the conversations we are starting through traditional news routes are spreading and continuing both online and verbally. As my colleague, Sylvain Perron - managing partner of Sonic Boom - puts it: “Media is social”. A client recently was surprised that 30 per cent of his noise at a major congress came from Twitter, despite not sending out a single tweet or even having a company Twitter page.

For any campaign or programme, we should be looking at where the opportunities are to start conversations, to fuel them, and to influence them. Medical congresses are a traditional example of this. What's on an exhibition stand, presented at symposia, contained in abstracts, posters and orals, driven by at press events and coverage and increasingly tweeted all starts, fuels and evolves conversations.

What make congresses so opportune are the concentration of influencers, target stakeholders and the focus of interest around a disease area or topic. Digital and social media experts already build on this principle by identifying and going to websites where communities already convene.

Communications needs to capitalise consciously on this principle – by taking the message to where people naturally converse, regardless of format or media.

People's opinions can change in minutes and spread almost instantly around the world

However, we believe that we should always choose the most appropriate channels based on analysis and evidence. It is much easier to take the conversation to your audience, rather than expending efforts to build and establish a place for that communication to occur.

4. What should we say?
Messages used to be about context, differentiation and audience relevance. The focus now needs to be around stickiness (the ability to start, spread or add to a conversation) and individualisation (both one-to-many and one-to-one targeting).

Malcolm Gladwell discussed the importance and impact of 'sticky' messages. In media relations, this has been long recognised as finding the pitch or angle that gets a story picked up and remembered. The digital age has enabled us increasingly to target our messages based on the profile of the end-user/audience, almost down to the individual.

Arguably what is being lost is the context – the storytelling element that comes through face-to-face communications. This is the aspect of messaging that captures the audience's imagination and creates the importance links in memory. Yet, the advantage of a conversation approach to communications is the ability to deliver your messages over multiple points and time periods, through different formats without losing the context. Storytelling is now ensuring the target audience comes away with an overall picture, with each discrete communication sticky in itself, without having to try to deliver the whole story in one sitting.

5. How should we say it?
Conversations are now about saying more with less – SMS messages; tweeting in 140 characters; three minute YouTube videos; Facebook one-liners, use of pictures, short urls and videos; and now Pinterest (which is the third most popular social network). These channels are now the preferred media and the way that audiences like to consume and share information. All deliver something very concise, visual, easy to digest and pass on, and something you can add your view on – all in seconds, often on the move. The skill of being to communicate consistently and concisely across multiple formats is now quintessential part of every campaign.

6. How do we know if they are listening?
Share of news should now be share of conversation. Traditionally around 80−90 per cent of news content was driven by press releases, so how much of social media is driven by them or is that now the wrong metric? Today's metric should be less about clippings or impressions, or even overall coverage. What defines the success of our campaigns is our ability to influence or change the conversation and messaging, how our message is received and how successful we have been to cut through all the noise.

Traditionally campaign success measurement has looked at a defined period of time to measure coverage over. Today conversations are almost instant – so we need to be continuously evaluating, adapting to the ongoing conversations and changing what we say and how we say it as a result. We should have a means to plan our communications and base these on scenarios in order to react quickly to the changing landscape. In this way we can deliver discrete pieces of communication that morph together into an overall conversation. This fundamentally changes the way we define and measure ROI.

So what does a conversation-based healthcare public relations programme look like and how does the industry need to change to implement it? That's the start of another conversation.

Article by
Sam Barnes

director of public relations at AXON and can be contacted via email

17th July 2013

From: Sales, Marketing

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