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Shifting Health Care Communications Strategies

Sharon Reis   October 14, 2020  

This article originally appeared in O’Dwyer’s October 2020 Healthcare Issue.

Failure to stay relevant is a catastrophe for PR professionals. For 2020, relevancy is the primary determinant of success in the era of COVID-19.

For all of us, not just those in health care communications, this has been a year of chaos. We were forced to repeatedly adapt to a rapidly changing environment and continually learn unexpected lessons for moving forward in this bewildering new reality.

We were pushed to constantly reevaluate messaging and positioning to demonstrate engagement and sensitivity to the COVID-19 situation. For every news story, social post, speech, and product, PR professionals needed to take daily and weekly checks on the environment to figure out when and how it was appropriate to step in and step up.

As a health care PR agency, our first priority in this tumultuous time is taking care of our team. The only way we can serve our clients well is if we first take care of ourselves. For our team, self-care is no longer a luxury. It is a survival mechanism. When the federal Emergency Declaration hit, we abandoned our Washington, D.C. office and went fully remote. It was a seamless transition because we already offered our team members “Work-from-Home Fridays.” It was our best answer for telework. When we opened our small, woman-owned business four years ago, we started working remotely once a week on the day of your choice. But that became too confusing; some people would take it, others would not. It got to the point where we didn’t know whether someone was in or out of the office. Our solution was giving everyone the benefit of Fridays at home, with the requirement to use video calls as the primary form of communication. Everyone needed to have a home-office set up. Wow! Did that ever pay off when the coronavirus hit!

I remember reading a post on Instagram that said, “We are in a crisis…and working remotely.” To help our own staff practice self-care, take time to nurture their mental health, and figure out their new life, we immediately activated our annual summer hours program several months early: Everyone takes a day off from work every other Friday. It gives all of us a time to reflect, recharge, and reconnect with what matters to each of us personally. And the positive effects are felt professionally too.

We are clearly not the only ones who think this kind of respite is important: according to a recent Samueli Integrative Health survey, a majority (64%) of Americans say they are focused on their mental health now more than ever.

COVID-19 hit particularly hard for some of our primary clients, whose work missions put them on the frontlines of the pandemic. Key client concerns shifted instantly and strongly to anything and everything COVID: safety and personal protective equipment, clinician burnout, the surge in telehealth and teletherapy, the incredible impact of the social determinants of health, the no-visitor rules at care facilities, constantly changing care guidelines, patients forgoing care, postponed surgeries–and people dying.

The media world changed too. For a firm that prides itself on excelling in earned media relations and thought leadership, we needed to reconfigure how we shared our clients’ perspectives. Consider the state of media during the first half of this year:

  • Hundreds of journalists were laid off at Vice, Quartz, The Economist, BuzzFeed, CondeNast and elsewhere.
  • According to The New York Times, nearly 40,000 employees of news media companies were furloughed, laid off, or had their pay cut.
  • COVID-19 has literally killed nearly 100 weekly and daily publications, bringing the total to roughly 1,800 news outlets that have just disappeared in the past decade.

Nonetheless, there was some good news about the news media:

  • A Pew study found 69% of Americans approved the media coverage of the pandemic.
  • Other polls found that trust in broadcast and cable network news was growing; and
  • Americans wanted science to guide our way out of this pandemic.

For our clients, in-person scientific meetings came to an abrupt halt. Now the virtual or hybrid annual meeting is here to stay. A recent issue of Science explored COVID-19’s huge impact on annual scientific meetings. A human-centered artificial intelligence conference that typically draws 3,000 attendees switched to a virtual format. The result? The conference attracted more than 30,000 participants. The reported benefits included moderators more effectively screening questions and avoiding non-questions. The virtual meeting was more accessible and affordable. What do the meeting participants miss the most? In-person networking. Many organizations are trying to replicate that connection on social media but being in the presence of another human being is impossible to replace, although online platforms are still trying to figure it out.

For one of our in-person community-based campaigns, we shifted everything online and eliminated all printed materials. One of our clients was in the middle of testing a campaign focused on health and well-being, focused on reaching the underserved population in five pilot markets. The “TakeCare” project is all about the power that every one of us has to improve our own health and well-being. What makes this campaign different and exciting is the use of newly produced documentary film shorts with real people taking small steps to make real changes in their lives. These films make emotional connections and inspire behavior change. Since we could no longer be in-market, we pivoted quickly to online. Within 30 days, we launched a digital micro-campaign within TakeCare, to specifically help people during COVID-19. We released five engaging film shorts that shared powerful stories of people who have transformed their health and well-being through small steps, and highlighting topics that were particularly relevant in the new environment: stress relief, building community, finding meaning and purpose.

Surveys and polls are more popular than ever for the news media. I’ve never seen so many polls covered in the news, posted on social media, and written about by the trades, aside from election season. In just a single week, I counted at least 10 polls covered by Google News before I stopped counting! There was the Harris Poll, Politico/Harvard poll, CNN poll, Quinnipiac University poll, Fox News poll, Kaiser Family Foundation Tracking, USA Today/IPSOS poll, and more. The abundance of survey findings tells us two things. First, they work. Second, they provide your client an opportunity to stay relevant, if you can find something newsworthy to add.

What are we looking at in 2021 for health care PR? We will continue to operate in a chaotic and uncertain environment. Trying to make meaningful personal connections virtually will be essential. Microtargeting on a single platform is a must, and our clients will need science and new data to remain a vital part of the national conversation. Welcome to the new normal!

As the saying goes, “there is wisdom and freedom in accepting that we don’t have all the answers.” While we are figuring those answers out, we as health care PR professionals must strive to find ways to keep our organizations and clients relevant.

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