The Agency Business: Finding - and cultivating - talented healthcare PR staffers

As the search for healthcare pros grows more challenging, some schools are offering courses dedicated to the discipline, while many firms provide their own training.

As the search for healthcare pros grows more challenging, some schools are offering courses dedicated to the discipline, while many firms provide their own training.

Healthcare PR is among the most complex and highly regulated sectors in the industry. And finding the right people to service clients has become more challenging than ever.

"There's a dearth of great talent out there," says Marita Gomez, a partner at HealthInfo, adding that she has been trying for the past four months to find the right candidate to fill a position. "It's really the nuances ... how you integrate PR in today's environment."

She adds that the role of the PR professional has changed over the past five years. PR no longer has the backseat to other marketing functions, but is regularly expected to counsel the C-suite on reputation issues facing the industry.

So it is challenging, Gomez says, to find a candidate who can understand not only media relations and communications, but also science, medicine, business, and government.

Michael Durand, partner and director of the global healthcare practice at Porter Novelli, notes that the "talent crunch" can be attributed in part to the lack of formal training programs.

"If there is a shortage of people with healthcare PR experience, why aren't schools doing more to establish courses to teach healthcare PR?" Durand asks. "On-the-job training is not necessarily bad, but it's very expensive."

At Euro RSCG Life Public Relations, CEO Tony Russo also notes that finding a candidate who has formal training in both the sciences and communications is rare. In fact, he says, he often finds himself interviewing the "black sheep" in a family of scientists - a person trained in communications, but with science and medicine still "somewhere in their genetic makeup."

"That person is a natural for us," he says. "If they're not interested in science and medicine, they won't last long. They must realize that the area they're interested in is highly technical."

Kurt Wise, an assistant professor in the communications department of DePaul University, has seen firsthand the type of student the PR discipline attracts. This is the second year that DePaul is offering a healthcare PR class to graduates and undergraduates.

"My biggest complaint against PR undergraduates is that in general they can speak well, [but] know nothing about the US healthcare system," he says. "Wherever they're hired, they must go through an intensive program."

Nancy Bacher Long, president of Dorland Public Relations, notes that agencies are picking up where schools leave off - growing talent through internships.

At HealthInfo, interns work with science directors, graphic designers, web directors, account leaders, and journalists, Gomez notes.

Executives disagree about which side is easier to learn - the science side or the communications part.

"We can teach them healthcare," Durand says. "The market is so competitive that we look for self-starters. We take a chance on people who don't have healthcare experience ... and want to learn quickly."

He adds that PN has a healthcare curriculum that focuses on such topics as how the Food and Drug Administration operates, how drugs are approved, and how to interpret clinical- trial results.

He notes that about half of junior PN healthcare staffers will need to be trained in the discipline; the other half have had previous healthcare experience, usually at a nonprofit.

Russo, in contrast, notes that it is easier to teach someone media skills, and new hires start with a sort of PR 101.

"When I founded the firm in 1988, I realized then that science and knowledge of medicine would be a key driver to create programs and service the business," he says, adding that the same is still true. "In our field, drugs are more complex than they were in the past."

But there is general agreement that the talent crunch will only get worse.

"Healthcare is a growth section of public relations," Wise says, pointing to the aging baby boomer population that will accelerate the demand for health services. For candidates who are able to master all sides of the discipline, opportunities in the profession will be "gold."

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Working around the talent crunch

  • Formal and informal training and mentoring can go a long way in teaching both interns and new hires the nuances of the healthcare field

  • Creative hiring has become more common. Firms are recruiting from all marketing disciplines, as well as from clients, government agencies, and nonprofits

  • Client needs can be met through blended teams in which more science-focused individuals work alongside staffers who have communications backgrounds

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