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Making a big splash

Healthcare communicators should not feel hemmed in by tightening regulations. Make heads turn by breathing new life into your campaign

Lately, healthcare public relations practitioners might be feeling as if work has become a bit stale. They are playing a role in an industry limited by tightening regulations, facing smaller pipelines, generic threats and working in new markets, yet with mature compounds. So now more than ever, it's time to shake off the status quo in healthcare PR. Let's not sit on the sidelines and envy the word-of-mouth publicity generated by consumer communications – we deserve the share of voice we work so hard for.

Easily said – now how do we go about it? Most of us are working through some pretty brilliant strategies daily. It's just a matter of putting it all together and working with the best of the best. Here are a few of the actions that are creating some of the most compelling work out there.

The best idea wins, regardless of its source
That idea can come from anywhere – the client, our agency team, a partner agency, the morning's headline or a Twitter conversation that sparked a particular inspiration. As long as the idea is fresh and ties directly back to a client's strategy and business goals, an agency should be 100 per cent on board to make it happen to its fullest potential.

In today's environment – where the media, economic and cultural climate and consumer appetite can change with the click of a mouse – the best communications strategies are those that involve as many audience 'touch points' as possible. We will be vocal advocates for what is possible in PR and listen carefully to the experts in the other disciplines. We need to take a page out of consumer and brand public relations and get back to working with our counterparts on advertising, digital, medical education and research teams and glean the true gems that form the greatest ideas.

Challenge inaction and change behaviour
We must remember that our competitors are not just the Pfizers, the Roches or the Novartises of the world. Whether you are treating heart disease or sexual dysfunction, the biggest competitor we face is often doing nothing.

Our target consumers are overwhelmed with information, and the number of consumers who can sift through it and take action are dwarfed by the number of those who are overawed, intimidated and, ultimately, inactive.

We need to understand fully what drives the members of our target audience, from their fears to their hopes, from their behaviours and their habits and – naturally – the places in which we can reach them, in order to persuade them to change their behaviour and seek solutions for their healthcare problems. And that's when the brand comes into view.

With forward planning and time, an examined look at affecting incremental changes in behaviour is also a way to use some innovative, consumer-facing tactics – within Code – that can be fun, creative and, most importantly, impactful.

Abandon silos
Without silos, agencies have the flexibility to move the right people for the job on to a client's business, assembling a team with the right mix of client and category experience, creativity, passion and obsession with detail to ensure clients will be in great company and the safest possible hands.  It's not just prudent from an organisational and logistics perspective, but can also ensure a bigger picture view that draws on the best practice from any world, be it corporate, brand or healthcare.

For new thinking, look in new places.

Think globally, act locally
It doesn't take an anthropologist to realise there is a big, wide world out there. While a strategy can certainly be applicable across borders, its implementation, expression and execution must be variable. Global teams have to accept this, while local teams must be able to advocate – clearly and without ego – for implementation that best reflects cultural norms, especially in emerging markets. In these conversations, agencies can mediate and ask questions such as: 'Do we agree with the concept? How does this benefit us all? What parts must change?'

Gloria Pedro, PR and communication manager at Almirall SA, says: "As a client, I really look towards my agencies to do as much preparation and research as possible when it comes to providing strategic counsel and developing effective global PR programmes. It's important to me that my agency partners are willing to be flexible when it comes to tailoring elements of our approach to ensure that they are globally meaningful and locally relevant and that they are willing to consider 'the bigger picture' when it comes to considering local implementation of global programmes."

With modern technology, global and local market teams can shape messages and tools before they hit the PowerPoint Slide or WebEx. Together, we can make sure that overarching themes resonate with stakeholders, and spend more time bringing messages alive tactically than discussing semantics. This individualised approach may be time-consuming at the outset, but has lasting benefits.

Make the digital move
Social media extends the reach, power and speed of PR to influence and makes it easier to turn influence into action. Working in an integrated capacity, and especially on disease awareness campaigns, we can flex our creative digital muscle.  But when regulations don't make it easy for us to work in this capacity, there are basic things we can do – and must do – to advance our practice. It starts with listening and analysing conversations – and responding when we are able. It then moves to understanding who the major influencers are in the online space and then activating them to comment, defend or add balance to critical issues.

Sweat the small stuff
Recently, a combination of pharmaceutical ingenuity and communications savviness has driven some very successful campaigns that match the right drug to the right patient. Niching enables us to make a valid case for prescription; it adds ease to providers' lives and, ultimately, it should drive the best outcome for the patient.

Even if we are not working with true 'designer drugs', we as communicators can identify the suitability of certain regimens for specific populations or lifestyles. It is incumbent upon us to interrogate our briefs, work closely with the medics and do our research to devise the best targeted strategies and the right activities to deliver them.

Walk the halls
Some of the more seasoned professionals in our business harken back to the 'good old days', where we knew very little of travel bans or budget cuts, when agency and clients met regularly and every member of the team had 'face time'. Yes, the new economy and squeezed team structures have imposed some limitations, but all of us can vouch for the fact that some of our most meaningful time has been spent in the meeting rooms, desksides and corridors of our clients.

It's how we understand what our clients are up against in their daily jobs; it's how we hear the true fears and hopes for our brand and learn how decisions are made and prioritised; and it's where we glean all the jewels mentioned in this article – from integrated approaches, to local market needs, to the smallest insight that allows us to make the hugest impact.

When agencies say they want to be partners and not service providers, they mean it. Clients: please invite us in.

The Author
Amanda Moulson is a director at Emanate
She can be contacted at or on +44 (0)20 7611 3553.

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11th April 2011


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