Lucie Harper, Weber Shandwick - Make the potential a reality

Healthcare communications has bucked the recession, and there is plenty more potential.

Healthcare communications is a thriving industry. We are in the most severe recession in recent memory, but healthcare communications is chugging along happily.

My colleagues in other agencies tell me how busy they are and I can confidently vouch for the fact that my team has never been busier.

I am not saying that everything is rosy. The industry faces many challenges - tightening regulatory controls, budget restrictions and the ongoing debate about what we can and cannot do digitally. However, we are in pretty good shape. How does healthcare communications withstand the challenges faced by other specialisms?

There is an argument that it is because 'everyone always needs healthcare'. This may be true, but I think it goes deeper than that. The scope of healthcare communications is constantly changing; it is far broader than it was five years ago. I believe that healthcare communications is one of the broadest public relations disciplines. It touches multiple aspects of people's lives. And therein lies its enormous potential.

This view has informed my focus for Weber Shandwick over the past 12 months. I believe the potential reach of healthcare communications is enormous and, as a result, we have re-branded ourselves Weber Shandwick Health rather than Healthcare. After all, our work is about health in the broadest sense. We have also established dedicated specialisms in public health, consumer health, food science and medical education - all alongside our core pharma business. Over the coming years we will broaden our areas of expertise wider still.

Some people believe health communications is mainly about media relations. Media relations is a cornerstone of what we do, but to me it is just a part of what we can offer.

Campaigns that make a difference now need to be 'inline' - a concept we developed at Weber Shandwick.

Essentially, consumers do not think online or offline, and they do not use just one source of information. Consumers seek and receive their information from multiple sources. So a programme must be integrated to succeed.

Also, a true understanding of how consumers behave is at the root of a successful campaign. In an age when we trust the recommendations of friends and strangers online more than corporate marketing messages, this has never been more relevant. I also note - and I believe this is very important - that a healthcare professional is a consumer too, and I use the term 'consumer' in its broadest sense.

Our business is incredibly diverse and this is reflected by the diversity of our people. The people who work in health public relations come from many backgrounds and that is what keeps it interesting. I have been in the business for 15 years, but I remain constantly motivated and passionate about where our industry is going.

More and more agencies are setting up practices to focus on health public relations - seeing the opportunities that involvement in this sector brings. This belies the fact that health communications remains one of the most challenging disciplines to deliver well. We work within regulations that are tough and getting tougher. The environment is hugely competitive and clients want quick results. At the heart of any successful campaign lie creativity, intelligence, passion and a deep-rooted understanding and experience of health communications.

The real opportunity is for visionary agencies, agencies that are willing to redefine the sector and embrace the enormous scope that working in health communications brings.


- What did you learn from the swine flu episode?

The main aspect I found interesting from a communications standpoint was the way in which the story evolved. It captured the attention of the media for a relatively long time and it was fascinating to see the different angles taken by journalists and how the focus of the story varied over time. The story is still being covered now - as well as the changing news angles, we are seeing more in-depth articles about service delivery and opinion pieces on the financial aspects of the crisis. Overall, a fascinating evolution of one story covering multiple geographies, stakeholders, angles and issues.

- Lucie Harper is group managing director, health at Weber Shandwick.

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