When it comes to planning and executing a successful healthcare campaign, research has a key part.
It's estimated that more than 4 million Americans suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), with approximately 80% of them lacking a diagnosis. CFS, which presents flu-like symptoms, has been dubbed the "yuppie flu," and those who have it are often perceived as being lazy, not sick.
In 2006, the Chronic Fatigue and Immune Dysfunction System (CFIDS) Association of America, formed in 1987, launched its first national awareness campaign. After nearly 20 years of educating people about the disease, it had a sense of what people thought, but used research to confirm it.
"There hadn't been any formal research on public or healthcare attitudes, so this was the first meaty attempt to quantify that," says Kim McCleary, president and CEO of the CFIDS Association of America. "We wanted to have some firm data to balance off the first-person reports of how [patients] were being treated."
With its AOR, Fleishman-Hillard, the organization conducted focus groups in summer 2005, asking medical professionals what their beliefs about CFS were and how they treat patients with CFS. The team also asked CFS patients about their experiences with the healthcare community.
"We needed to know what it's like to live with this disease before we knew what kinds of tactics would work," says Michael Greenwell, SVP at Fleishman in Atlanta.
Doctors, who are inundated with medical information, asked for handy resources that would help them with patients who showed signs of CFS. They also needed to know that any disease they were asked to acknowledge was first recognized by a scientific organization like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Patients expressed a need for hope.
"It would be a disservice to people with CFS if we launched the awareness campaign and the doctors were reluctant to treat it seriously," Greenwell notes.
The result has been an integrated campaign that includes media outreach, PSAs, advertising, and a traveling photo exhibit, "The Faces of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome." A pocket guide and downloadable information have also been made available to doctors.
A route to outreach
Despite increased access to information, PR campaigns to build awareness about medical conditions continue to be vital. Pre-campaign research can supply the best routes to reaching people on all sides of the healthcare equation.
Of the 8.5 million people who have lost half of their kidney function, African Americans make up a high proportion. A 2003 survey of African Americans conducted by the National Kidney Disease Education Program (NKDEP), an effort of the National Institutes of Health, found that few were aware that diabetes and hypertension could lead to kidney disease.
"It's critical to start with what the consumer knows and then try to expand on that," says Elisa Gladstone, NKDEP associate director.
"We noticed that family reunions were a significant cultural venue for African Americans," adds Gladstone. "[So we thought], why don't we tap into that and make the connection?"
Along with its PR partner, Ogilvy PR Worldwide, NKDEP conducted one-on-one interviews with reunion planners and attendees in 2005 to find the best outreach strategy. They found that African Americans were increasingly creating healthier family-reunion menus, a finding substantiated by the greater number of inquiries on the topic to the NKDEP.
The research culminated in the Family Reunion Initiative, which launched for the 2006 family-reunion season and included The Family Reunion Health Guide, an educational packet.
"In families, there are health champions who talk to others about health information," says Michael Briggs, SVP at Ogilvy.
The team also conducted focus groups to ensure the guide resonated with the intended audience. The findings led to adjustments, such as added fact sheets about diabetes and hypertension to enhance "health champion" expertise and images - namely, a cover shot of a multi-generational family.
Ogilvy and NKDEP worked with a variety of grassroots organizations to distribute information, created a Web site, and performed media outreach to African-American and family-reunion-themed outlets. Last year, 90 churches distributed 28,000 guides and announcements, and guide down- loads totaled 24,000. The effort continues this year in cities with large African-American populations like Houston and Baltimore.
"Using the consumer-based research, PR helps breathe life into something that, until then, sits on a computer as an idea," says Gladstone.
Research can be useful to a campaign no matter who the stakeholder is. For the past three years, Echo Research has worked with the International Business Leaders Forum (IBLF) to delve into the issue of obesity, a major focus for the World Health Organization (WHO).
The IBLF held a business roundtable during the WHO convention in 2004, bringing together corporate leaders to address the issue. The results became part of the Recipe for Success HEAL (Healthy Eating & Active Living) Global Partnership report, published in February, which helps corporations address consumer health issues.
"One of the things we found useful is to illustrate how complex the issue is and how it's not going to be tackled by vilifying one particular sector, like junk food," says Olive Boles, director of global health partnerships for the IBLF.
In addition, Echo focused on teens, conducting a panel in 2005 to study their perceptions of obesity. Using a specialist in interviewing teen audiences, Echo created an online poll targeting adolescents, who were rewarded with mobile phone credits for participating. Echo discovered that the way to reach this group was to emphasize the positive rather than dwell on the negative.
"The research told us that young people were aware of obesity as an issue, but it wasn't as great as cancer as a threat to their lifestyle or existence," says Andrew Cox, consumer sector director at Echo.
Research takes time and accuracy to conduct, but without it, PR firms and their clients may find themselves working blindly.
"We only would have guessed about how to reach the healthcare community," says Fleishman's Greenwell, "and we would've guessed wrong."
Asking the right questions
Michael Greenwell, head of the healthcare practice in Fleishman-Hillard's Atlanta office, suggests these questions when conducting research with patients for a healthcare campaign:
How does this illness affect your life?
What type of message about this illness would move you to take some kind of action (learn more, tell someone about what you've heard, etc.)?
What has your experience been with the healthcare sector up until now?
Where do you get your healthcare information?
Who do you trust for healthcare information?
How severe is your illness? How long have you been ill?