Hughes PR, Public relations

Walking the tightrope of healthcare communications

The healthcare industry is big business

Simon Hatcher writes…

Today, we’re looking at the use of public relations by the healthcare industry, and how it can be highly effective if used well, and how it can quickly backfire if used badly.

The healthcare industry sector forms a significant part of the Australian economy. Spending on healthcare equates to more than 65 billion dollars per annum, which equals 10 percent of Australia’s gross domestic product across the public and private sectors – so it’s big business.

Like most industries, healthcare has many competing interests, with industry and peak bodies, health funds, pharmaceutical companies and many others all working hard to get their message out and shape the healthcare debate.

Some of the most successful exponents of healthcare communications have been the not for profits and peak bodies. The Cancer Council’s Pink Ribbon Day and SIDS and Kids Red Nose Day are good examples.

Both campaigns have communicated an important message and changed behaviour but also given opportunities for people to have fun and engage with the organisations.

In the case of Pink Ribbon Day, a heightened awareness has been created among Australian women of the need for regular mammograms. The SIDS and Kids Red Nose Day has given the organisation a platform to communicate its Safe Sleeping message and this has significantly reduced Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) related deaths by changing the way parents put their young child to sleep.

They’re also similar in the fact that their message is based on peer reviewed scientific and clinical research and therefore highly
credible.

Both campaigns have saved lives and public relations had a major role to play.

Good healthcare communication requires sound ethics and some organisations in this sector have come unstuck with their tactics.

Pharmaceutical companies for example have been particularly aggressive with their public relations, in part because they’re legally
restricted from advertising, and the third party endorsement that comes from public relations is highly valuable.

Profit versus ethics

In some cases, pharmaceutical companies have established and funded their own advocacy groups, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars entertaining medical specialists, and even targeted influential academics to act as authors, draft articles, and ensure that these articles include clearly-defined branding messages and appear in the most prestigious journals.

These tactics have been closely scrutinised by the media and put the organisations involved on the back foot. Instead of proactively and positively communicating their message, they find themselves in crisis management mode.

Credibility remains a significant issue in healthcare public relations and campaigns and announcements need to be based on sound research, delivered by credible spokespeople and maintain a respect for the audience and media.

Upholding ethics is key to all healthcare communications. Healthcare organisations need to focus their communications efforts on building trust with their stakeholders over the long term and avoid chasing quick results, an approach that risks putting their reputations in danger.

Healthcare public relations and communications have the power to improve the public’s health, and even save lives.

Therefore, they carry with it a degree of corporate and social responsibility that should be taken seriously.

Hughes PR is a communications and public relations consultancy with proven and extensive experience in publicity and media relations, issues management, crisis management, digital media and social media strategy and implementation, community consultation, event management, media training, publications and strategic problem solving. Find out more.

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