PM360 asked public relation experts how the pandemic has led to changes in communication strategy and what role PR can play in improving health equity. Specifically, we wanted to address two key questions:
- What lessons can life sciences companies learn about how they handled public relations and communications during the pandemic that can be applied moving forward? Should companies make any changes in how they disseminate info?
- As the life sciences industry makes more of an effort to improve health equity, what role can communicators and public relations play in addressing this issue and amplifying the voice of underserved communities?
Since early 2020, we have seen two polar-opposite errors in judgment when it comes to thought leadership public relations in the life sciences. On the one hand, some companies completely retreated from communications, opting to remain silent rather than enter a noisy media landscape. This first view leaves a void to be filled by competitors all too willing to speak up.
On the other hand, some companies seemed to think that a pandemic would be an appropriate time to voice opinions on every aspect of the pandemic, positioning themselves as experts on diagnostic testing, vaccines, public health policy, and therapeutics (regardless of whether they actually possess any subject matter expertise at all). The latter strategy is flawed because it undermines credibility at best, and is exploitative at worst.
Instead, companies should be focused and balanced in their communications—pandemic or not—and share expertise only when they truly and genuinely possess it. It’s actually a show of strength to defer to true thought leaders on topics outside of your expertise and then speak on the topics you actually know. After all, PR for the sake of PR is just a tactic in search of a strategy.
The pandemic has touched virtually every aspect of communications, and we were all reminded about the importance of thinking holistically about both a company’s internal and external audiences. Some things worth remembering as we continue to manage through this crisis:
1. The complex challenges created in a public health crisis have changed the work environment and dynamics for many, and internal communications need to evolve as a result. Investing the time to fine-tune internal communications plans, protocols, and procedures with an eye toward transparency will pay dividends in the long run.
2. The pandemic has been an all-hands-on-deck experience for already resource-constrained newsrooms around the world. More than ever, PR pros need to be sensitive to reporters’ priorities during a public health crisis, keeping in mind they are inundated every day with new and rapidly changing information, some of which really takes a toll on them. Journalists are already working longer hours than usual and facing the same concerns for their and their family’s health as everyone else. Is what you are pitching them timely, relevant, and important to the conversation? Are you offering solutions and/or helpful context, or just noise?
We can all agree that the global pandemic has changed every aspect of our lives. The Communications field was not immune to these changes, forcing seasoned professionals to reinvent the PR playbook in this new world. While the learnings of the last 18 months are countless, companies should be focusing on a few core actions.
Focus on the Human, Not the “Audience.” To earn the attention of a target “audience” start from a human-centric perspective. Patients and HCPs are humans and understanding their holistic universe can help companies better influence, reach, and connect with them.
It’s a Digital World and We’re Just Living in It. Social media has changed the healthcare game. The rise of telehealth, doctor TikTok, and healthfluencers are reinventing how patients educate and advocate for themselves. Staying offline is not an option anymore in order to communicate and harness influence effectively.
A Rise in Mistrust Means Transparency is Non-Negotiable. The pandemic created a tidal wave of mistrust. From fake news to vaccine misinformation, communicating the “truth” has become more challenging. In this new world, transparency in communications is critical and should be prioritized both internally and externally.
Change doesn’t happen without some discomfort. Improving health equity requires deep listening followed by thoughtful action. Health communicators will help companies move from treating white American men as representative of all people to embracing the diversity of humanity. Listening to people with lived experience and incorporating their needs into programming is an important job for communicators.
People with lived experience are experts, not anecdotes. We often talk about “patient centricity” and it’s time to move from talking about it to embracing it through daily actions—which includes not defining a person by an illness or condition.
Health communicators should be at the table for every discussion that impacts health equity, including clinical trial design and recruitment, disease awareness and brand campaigns, and also hiring. To improve health equity, we need to have diverse populations in our industry. By having more voices in our brainstorms, we can work toward messages that are linguistically appropriate and culturally acceptable. More voices means that we will have fewer blind spots about obstacles to health equity. Partnering with our colleagues in human resources is a key part of addressing health equity.
The pandemic highlighted the need and consumer demand for truth and transparency. Research has confirmed this, but common sense makes it an obvious conclusion—yet embracing and executing this truth is a struggle for many companies.
While health equity has many aspects, at its core is recognizing each other as human beings. By listening to millions of patients over time, we have realized that pharma companies must reflect empathy through their campaigns and deliver personalized support to patients in a way that truly connects with and motivates them. Leaders and marketing organizations need emotional intelligence. This is a critical element towards better understanding the needs of our clients, customers, employees, and communities.
It’s also important to engage people where they are through the use of technology. The pandemic set up barriers to people being together, but we adapted. This technical aspect must continue to be cultivated with these visceral human needs across the entire patient journey continuum as we move forward.
Embracing empathy as a central focus for marketers creates equity between patients and brands. Caring can be your greatest advantage. You can’t trigger motivation in a person until they know you really see them. Human to human.
When we consider the role communications should play in helping amplify the patient voice, we immediately look to how the industry can better project a more diverse patient voice to drive better health equity. But we’re starting in the wrong place. To better represent a more diverse patient voice, we first must understand that voice.
At present, I would argue this voice has gone largely unheard. Why is that? In many other consumer industries, social media plays a huge role in helping marketing and communication teams listen to, understand, and segment a broad church of views relating to consumer experience. Yet, while social listening and segmentation are not novel to most other industries, specific social listening to patients and their medicines remain untapped.
Currently, diverse patient voices are largely missed by the pharma industry, to the detriment of all involved. By paying closer attention to what patients say about their medicines online, the industry can get a better understanding of voices from segments of society that are traditionally harder to reach. If we allow the diverse patient voice to be heard, health communications, marketing, and interventions can become more personalized and healthcare decision-making for underserved communities can become more informed.