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Boosting innovation in healthcare and scientific communications

It’s time for communications to be brave and bring the outside in


When we, along with six other senior pharma communicators, came together with the Healthcare Communications Association (HCA) and 90TEN to talk about what was holding back creativity in our industry, our first challenge was to ask ourselves why we had a problem.

What were the factors that were preventing the fresh thinking and creativity (which we all firmly agreed healthcare communicators were capable of) from translating into cutting-edge work that makes people sit up and look?

Diagnosis: fear of failure

One of the first problems we identified is that we have become risk averse. Though many of us have track records in thinking big and daring to be different, there was a strong feeling that, as an industry, a fear of failure had set in and bred a strong aversion to taking even carefully calculated risks.

All of us had seen good ideas met with no after no: no, we can’t do that; no that will never get signed off; no, that’s not how we did it last time.

Most of us had first-hand experience of proposing innovative solutions to communications challenges – exciting solutions with the potential to achieve great results – only to see them watered down until they closely resembled the tried and tested tactics on which our industry has a tendency to rely.

When we first came together as a group to discuss this topic, we realised that every time we had done great, innovative work it was because we challenged and empowered ourselves to break down barriers and rethink what was possible. That meant confronting our fears and challenging ourselves not to let them stand in our way.

Creativity demands courage

Confronting our fears in this way takes courage: the courage to think differently, to challenge the status quo and to experiment with the unknown. If this sort of experimentation and journeying into uncharted territory seems impossible – even unimaginable – it’s important to remember that it can be done.

A few years ago, we didn’t think we could do social media outside the sphere of corporate communications – but we can, and we do. Even more recently, we didn’t think we could work with influencers – but today we can, and we do.

In fact, some of the most exciting and groundbreaking work that has been celebrated in recent years has come from influencer engagement as the power of this channel for connecting with target audiences has become apparent. What could we do next if we let our courage win through?

We can all be a little bit braver every day

When we think of bravery we tend to think of big, daring acts – of people running into burning buildings or climbing treacherous mountain peaks. What we need in pharma communications, however, is a quieter, more persistent kind of bravery.

We need the little and often approach of challenging ourselves every day to be open to possibilities, to think differently and find new ways to overcome the barriers that can stop great ideas from winning through. We need to look at ourselves and our teams and think about what we can do create an environment where brave people and ideas can thrive.

Currently in pharma communications there is no room for accepting that something might not go well, and this stifles our potential to innovate. As leaders we can empower our teams to be brave by nudging that mindset towards embracing experimentation.

We need brave people with the right skills...

It’s not just a matter of bravery. Everyone involved in Cannes or Canned? agreed that bringing people from diverse backgrounds into the mix has huge potential to benefit us all and supercharge our work with fresh insights and new thinking.

As the healthcare environment evolves and changes, so do the skills we need within our teams. The fact is that if we shape our teams based solely on the skills we’ve needed in the past, we’re not preparing ourselves for the present, let alone the future. We need creative, innovative people with diverse skill sets.

...and we need to enable them to thrive

If we don’t have the range of skills we need for today and tomorrow within pharma communications, we need to find them from outside. Importantly, once we have brought them onboard, we need to give them the opportunity to use those skills to help us to transform our communications.

Creative, talented people – the type of people we all want on our teams – are drawn to pharma comms for the same reason that we were: because of the science and the amazing stories we have to tell. But the problem is what happens once they get here: we stifle them with internal processes, limited budgets and multiple reporting structures. We forget to allow them the space to breathe and to create.

We may think of ourselves as being open, inclusive and inquisitive, but that isn’t always the experience of people joining pharma from other industries. Pharma has its own rules and regulations, its own way of interacting with its customers – even its own language. We shouldn’t expect people arriving in our world to walk the walk and talk the talk from day one.

After all, we hired them to bring new thinking and to add value, not to provide more of the same. If we bring people from outside in and then allow their contributions to be overlooked because they don’t talk or don’t think like everybody else in the room, we’re wasting everyone’s time.

It starts with us (and you)

There is no doubt that shifting the pharma communications mindset towards supporting brave, innovative and creative people from within and beyond pharma is a challenge. It’s not something that we will achieve overnight, but that is all the more reason why we need to start now.

We – all of us – can support the type of bravery we need to shake up our communications, inject it with innovation and ensure that it does what it needs to do: communicate effectively about pharma’s role in enabling people to live healthier lives.

Edel McCaffrey is an independent communications consultant and a member of the HCA Executive Committee; Peter Impey is Managing Director of 90TEN Communications; Lilianna Husseini is a senior leader in global communications. She spent the last decade working as a director of communications for Pfizer, Inc., in New York, the UK and Paris



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