The healthcare sector is somewhat recession-proof: It's less affected by the ups and downs of the economy, or any tech boom or dot-com bubble burst.As the industry continues to grow, however, so, too, does the need for PR firms to staff their healthcare divisions with employees qualified to manage its specific, often complex needs. And as many agency executives can attest, that challenge never gets easier.
It's true that finding qualified healthcare PR practitioners is the "great age-old question that everybody struggles and battles with," says Roger Fischer, president and CEO of FischerHealth, a wholly owned subsidiary of Porter Novelli.
Now the question those agency executives face is whether it is best to hire PR professionals and teach them the healthcare business, or hire healthcare professionals and train them in the art of PR.
"After making some mistakes along the way," Fischer says, his firm has concluded that "you really can't pick either/or."
"In order to be successful and serve your clients well, you need senior-level staffers who have both agency and healthcare experience," he explains. Regardless of a senior-level staffer's strong agency background, Fischer says, most healthcare clients will not accept someone as a trusted adviser and counselor if he or she doesn't know the business. And a client "won't be willing to wait for that person to learn the industry because they can find the help elsewhere," he adds.
But Susan Smirnoff, global strategic head of health and wellness at Ruder Finn, says that, in her experience working with healthcare clients, that hasn't been the case.
"Our clients are looking for people who understand the communications world," Smirnoff notes. "Clients recognize that [our people] are capable enough to grasp the science and understand the nuances not only of the [Food and Drug Administration] process and regulatory system that applies to our clients, but that they understand the underlying dynamics of the science of the job."
After working in the healthcare sector for more than 20 years, Smirnoff says she's found that when hiring a senior-level staffer, it's most important to look for a seasoned PR professional who started his or her career as a journalist or in some other form of communications.
"[Ideally] it's someone who understands marketing communications and the scope of media relations activity and how the media works," she explains. "It's also important they know how to write a cogent news release that can get through the approval process at the pharmaceutical company and easily be used by the press."
There are exceptions to this rule, of course, Smirnoff says. And, she adds, "We have consultants or actual staff members who have trained in the healthcare field, in the public policy area, or as nurses, so obviously their communications skills are very strong, too."
At the junior level, Fischer notes that his agency looks to hire people who have a foundation and training "at a quality agency. They don't have to have a healthcare background, but an interest in applying their craft in the healthcare arena."
Overall, though, he says qualified senior-level staffers are harder to identify. "Finding that mix of [healthcare and agency experience] really limits the field."
As the healthcare sector grows, so does the need for PR pros qualified to handle its unique complexities
Senior-level staffers should have strong communications backgrounds and be able to grasp the industry's scientific nuances
A proclivity for - or at least an interest in - healthcare is advantageous at junior levels