Closing the gap between healthcare and digital

Digital practices at large agencies have been pushing the boundaries for new-media uses in PR for several years now.

Digital practices at large agencies have been pushing the boundaries for new-media uses
in PR for several years now. But healthcare, thanks to a combination of regulatory concerns and a more conservative approach to marketing, has never really been at the forefront of this movement.

So as digital practices advance and healthcare practices begin to push clients toward new-media options, just how do healthcare PR pros help the digital team understand the unique challenges that come with the territory?

Kate Cronin, MD of Ogilvy's New York office, says the company's 360 Digital Influence group has several members who have paid particular attention to healthcare. Bringing members of the digital team to sit in with clients does two things, she says. In addition to better educating those staffers on the particular needs of healthcare clients, it also serves to help the clients understand what's possible.

"We're finding clients are more open to little things like this," she says. "They're seeing a lot of positive traction. There's more openness to it, but we have a long way to go. We're still baby-stepping."

But Cronin adds that the internal education works in the other direction as well. In February, the firm will host a management meeting to educate everyone on digital strategies. That, Cronin says, is a huge benefit. With the digital team able to share experience from outside the healthcare sector, the healthcare folks can then take the practices that would work best for their clients.

GCI Group specifically trains employees in both the healthcare and digital practices with six annual seminars from external experts on regulatory issues as it relates to Web 2.0 issues, says Bill Martin, EVP and global practice leader for the healthcare practice.

In New York, the agency hired Rachelle Spero, SVP for digital media, who also has a background in healthcare PR. Martin says this is crucial for an agency with as large a healthcare practice as GCI.

Jenny Moede, SVP of Waggener Edstrom's healthcare practice, feels there must be good channels of communication between the practice areas for it to work well. She says the healthcare practice still provides the filter to help ensure that the ideas pitched to companies have taken into account regulatory issues.

"We're educating back into [digital], too," Moede adds. "They understand it's not 'anything goes' and are getting well versed in the issues within healthcare - clinical trial information, scientific discoveries, etc."

Like Martin, Moede says it helps to have people in leadership roles within the digital practice who already have some sense of the issues at hand.

David Almacy, who joined WE after working as an e-communications director at the White House, has a grasp of the healthcare-specific issues strictly from operating in DC for many years, Moede says.

Of course, the difficulty exists for all: even healthcare practice leaders don't necessarily know where the lines are. Pharma companies continue to test the waters in different ways with social media, and Martin notes that GCI now works with two large companies designing standard operating procedures in engaging in Web 2.0.

"There are no regulatory policies dealing with this," Martin says. "So the real challenge that any organization faces is how to apply FDA regulatory policies to social media or Web 2.0 outlets."

Key points:
  • Education is crucial in helping digital practices understand healthcare regulatory issues
  • Education also works the other way: digital practices can pitch ideas that have worked in other areas
  • The regulatory issues are still fuzzy when healthcare meets Web 2.0

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