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What healthcare PR does best

So... what DO you actually do? It's the question that every PR person dreads. When we turn the table and ask our partners, parents, mates or children, "What do you think I do?" the answer varies from wining and dining journalists to acting as manipulative spin doctors. Read this… and all will become clear

In fact, from our morning latte and Metro paper until we collapse in bed each night, what we do as PR experts varies dramatically from day to day. And as the mandate for public relations expands, what we do will often overlap with other marcomms disciplines.

Anyone who works in communications will agree that the line between PR, advertising, medical education, public affairs and internal communications continues to blur as clients seek truly integrated solutions. While that doesn't make answering "what do you do?" any easier, we are all for integration and believe that the marketing mix is most impactful when there is seamless convergence between disciplines, all united by a single, principal brand value or what we at the Ogilvy Group call the 'Big Ideal' (for more information visit 

As much as we advocate for integration and a seat at the '360 table', we must continue to champion the unique attributes of public relations. These are what make our discipline particularly attuned for communicating medical information to a variety of audiences, including media, healthcare professionals, patients, payers and policy makers – to name a few.

However, PR is notoriously hard to define. With this in mind, we decided to take a look at what PR, and specifically healthcare PR, does best.  

Converse with audiences
PR engages audiences through dialogue. One definition that we particularly like is, "the creation and management of a dialogue between a company and its stakeholders". The ability to engender a conversation is a unique and valuable attribute of the public relations' discipline.

In contrast, an advertisement is in many ways a brand's monologue; a one-sided conversation, conducted in a venue (or a theatre to keep the metaphor alive) populated by the target audience. There is no opportunity for response and certainly no scope for debate or disagreement. 

The power of PR comes from its ability to engage audiences in a two-sided conversation through advisory boards, chat forums and other tactics. This conversation is an opportunity for the brand to listen and gain insight into an audience's responses and, of course, their needs. While a dialogue is scarier than a monologue as it requires giving up some control, it allows a brand to build credibility and establish a meaningful relationship with an audience in a way that other disciplines simply can't. 

A recent Ogilvy Healthworld survey of 1,800 adults living in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the UK and the US revealed that consumers are keen to be part of a conversation about health issues. Consumers are both talking and listening, and they are as equally free in sharing health information as they are in asking for it. Around two-thirds of those surveyed report that they have been asked for information or opinion on health-related matters, as well as receiving it from others. 

The conversation goes well beyond healthcare conditions as today's healthcare consumers are increasingly knowledgeable about their specific treatments, and among consumers surveyed, the majority knew the actual brand name of their prescription. Patients not only know about their own treatment, but about 40 per cent have recommended a brand to a fellow sufferer and around 20 per cent have made recommendations on between two and four occasions.

The rise of digital dialogue for the consumer
In all of this, we mustn't underplay the growing importance of the digital dialogue, which has changed the landscape considerably. The same Ogilvy Healthworld survey also revealed that patients are more likely to seek information from the Web than from any other source.

Web 2.0 is particularly well suited to sparking dialogue and discussion around healthcare topics and treatments, and PR can play a significant role in shaping the debate. We anticipate that the digital landscape will become increasingly important for healthcare communications, and within this landscape public relations is poised to lead the way.

Ability to cultivate third-party credibility
PR can harness the power of third-party endorsement highly effectively. What someone else says about your brand will always be perceived as more credible than what you say, so it is crucial for pharma marketers to work with relevant third parties to cultivate an objective and ideally favourable conversation.

Historically, healthcare PR has courted endorsement from the top down, working with key opinion leaders, professional groups, journalists and legislative bodies. Today, as we move from the age of deference to the age of reference, the patient, a caregiver, or an advocate, can hold equal sway with a thought-leader. In fact when we asked, "how much do you trust your information provider?",  "family or friend" ranked second in trustworthiness only to physicians. Accordingly, we increasingly work with patient groups and bloggers to shape the dialogue around health issues.

When considering the power of third-party endorsement, it is crucial to remember that doctors are not the only healthcare professionals that patient turns to. From a recent survey we ran, results revealed that pharmacists and nurses rank as highly trustworthy information providers. Through targeted communications initiatives, PR can influence and impact specific audiences – ultimately shaping their conversations and supporting their ability to communicate compelling and credible information about healthcare.

PR can infuse emotion – beyond functional benefits
When communicating about a disease, a diagnostic, a drug or a device, the epidemiology and the science are an integral part of the story. However, healthcare PR is most compelling and effective in changing behaviour when it fuses the functional (disease statistics, drug mechanism of action) with the emotional. By incorporating the patient and caregiver perspective, PR initiatives can look behind the data and put a face on a disease and compel target audiences to take action.

The most impactful efforts bring the patient experience to life with empathy instead of sympathy. These are the campaigns that illustrate the experience of an individual who is a mother, son, professional, artist, etc, first and a patient second.

When the patient experience is depicted with the utmost respect, and it is clear that the patient has been empowered to share his experience to educate others (as opposed to being victimised by a disease or used in an opportunistic fashion) audiences are more likely to be receptive to campaign messages. In the campaign shown in the photograph, someone with multiple sclerosis was featured to challenge perceptions about living with the disease. Receptive audiences take action – whether it is logging on to a website, signing a petition or getting a diagnostic test. All of this leads to successful communications campaigns.  

Contextualise to tell the whole story
The essence of advertising is to capture a thought or emotion with brevity. That's helpful when you are making your advertising buys; however, it is not useful for telling a complete story or a complex one. Not limited to a strapline or a 30-second slot, PR can be the ideal vehicle to delve deeper to tell a complicated healthcare story by providing background and context around an issue. PR is particularly well suited to relay numerous, complex messages around disease states and treatment. 

As consumers/patients become more sophisticated and involved in their own health management, PR can deliver extensive health information through a variety of channels including web-, pod, and vodcasts, long-form content on video-sharing websites such as YouTube, disease state or corporate websites, and for the less-digitally inclined audiences – through educational brochures. 

Each patient can make the decision whether to wade into the shallow end or dive deep into the seemingly endless pool of health information. 

Of course, the challenge remains with the quality and credibility of the plethora of available health information. Again, public relations can play a role – through conversation and third-party endorsement.

Public relations can help patients navigate through the information overload to select the most appropriate and credible information, so that they can equip themselves with the most relevant detail for an informed discussion with a healthcare provider.

Addresses issues in a fast and flexible manner
Perhaps the most nimble of the communications disciplines, PR can respond to issues and changes in the marketplace with speed and agility. We have the luxury to revise and refine a communications strategy as a crisis unfolds in order to address external changes, unlike an ad which can require significant production time, or a med ed programme which will need extensive medical involvement, and in the case of CME of course, outside accreditation.

For this reason, it is often during times of crisis that marketers truly appreciate the power of good PR when it comes to shaping a conversation. 

Public relations people are used to being in the frontlines engaging with the media, and since crises are almost always media-driven, we are the discipline most adept at anticipating and responding to issues. When crises arise, good PR people are deft and adroit, and will be prepared to address issues with creative, persuasive and media-savvy responses.

The importance of third-party support and endorsement is particularly evident at times when your brand is challenged, so it is crucial to build a cadre of brand advocates that you can call on in your time of need. Additionally at a time of crisis, it is crucial that objective information is available to contextualise the story. 

Very good PR people will always monitor the landscape in search of issues that could bubble to the surface, whether by following a particularly outspoken blogger or a national regulatory body. This further reinforces the importance of engaging in a two-way conversation whenever possible to understand the concerns and complaints of various stakeholders who interact with your brand.  Monitoring helps to anticipate potential crises and develop response strategy.

What great PR people know is that despite the amount of documents created and PowerPoint slides presented, there is no winning formula when it comes to crisis management.

Every crisis situation is unique and must be managed accordingly. Any set of rules or tools tailored too narrowly to the needs of a hypothetical crisis scenario would be too confining to be of practical value when a genuine crisis develops.

Integral component
So, does this make answering, "what do you do?" any easier? Probably not if you are looking for a pithy, one-word response. But it should help you articulate what it is that we actually do in healthcare PR – and when done right, public relations is an integral and powerful part of the marketing mix.

The Authors:
Matt de Gruchy is managing director and Antonia Betts is the director of operations and European development at OgilvyHealthPR
They can be contacted at and

14th November 2008


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