It's no secret that filling healthcare positions is hard. Every PR specialty requires strong communication skills, but gaining the scientific and governmental regulatory knowledge specific to this sector involves more creativity.
Michael Rinaldo's 23-year career has been a huge learning experience. The current SVP and global co-chair of the healthcare practice at Fleishman-Hillard, Rinaldo got his start with a graduate degree in journalism with a communications focus and only the required college-level science courses. He was recruited to a firm's healthcare practice just months out of school.
"Their expectation was that I understood the basics," he says. "There was an opportunity to learn the business. I gained aptitude over time and was able to move up the ladder."
When Fleishman hired him in 1989, Rinaldo had learned enough to be an account supervisor, but still relied on others for help.
"I felt qualified to run the day-to-day management of an account and counsel clients on a basic level," he says. "But there's a reason [for] senior counselors and a team environment inside agencies. You have to be smart enough to reach out for counsel support."
In Rinaldo's opinion, there are two challenges to learning the business. The first is understanding the science.
"When you read your first abstract in a medical journal, you may as well be reading a foreign language," he says.
The other challenge is understanding the social, political, and media environment in which you are working, Rinaldo says. Today, he has these words for junior AEs looking to become involved in healthcare PR: "They need to be able to absorb things that can be pretty demanding at times. We're under a lot of constraints from a regulatory perspective. If you're not energized by that, this isn't the business for you."
Chandler Chicco Agency works solely on healthcare PR. Some of the firm's teams are a mixture of scientists and media specialists. For example, one team member is a Ph.D. in clinical nutrition. He works with PR specialists, providing the scientific relevance of the data with which they're working.
"Having someone in the mix who isn't a traditional PR person, having that fresh brain, is very dynamic," says Julie Adrian, head of the firm's LA office. "It allows us to go down new roads that we never would go down because we're stuck in that PR world."
But according to Adrian, the scientists on staff must be willing to step back and allow their PR peers to be experts, as well. Because the scientists might lack some basic PR skills, there has to be an understanding throughout the organization (and with clients) about the role that a non-traditional team member will play.
"We have to keep expectations in check on all sides," says Adrian.
For agencies that don't take the CCA approach, necessary healthcare expertise is based on the position that is being filled - entry-level, senior-level, or someplace in between.
"A smart person can learn the industry," says Nancy Hicks, head of the North American healthcare practice at Ketchum. "But if someone isn't a good writer, it's harder to teach them how to write and how to pitch."
With healthcare clients, PR pros must understand the science of the sector
For AEs lacking a science background, acquiring the knowledge for healthcare PR is an ongoing process
Sometimes, adding a doctor or other non-traditional staffer to a PR team can be a great asset