Healthcare PR can be daunting to those who have the desire to work in the field, but not necessarily the experience.
But agency pros insist that other traits - such as curiosity - can matter as much or more than scientific knowledge. In fact, many say, in a sector where firms always seek to stand out, the combination of general PR skills with a desire to learn can be as good a fit for an agency's healthcare business as, say, a degree in neurophysiology, or even years in the field.
"You don't [need] a degree in molecular science," says Ame Wadler, chair of Burson-Marsteller's global healthcare practice, whose background is in consumer marketing and crisis affairs. "If you're well-grounded as a generalist and have the curiosity to learn healthcare, you can do it."
Wadler says that candidates who come from science-driven industries, such as software or petrochemicals, or a heavily regulated industry like telecommunications, have a good basis for working in the healthcare industry.
"It's refreshing to have people that come at healthcare with issues from previous jobs," says Peter Pitts, MS&L SVP. "Like [former NBA coach] Red Holtzman said, 'You draft talent, [not] position.'"
Pitts, a former associate commissioner for external relations at the Food and Drug Administration, says firms could also consider people who worked in the healthcare industry in a non-PR role.
But Megan Svensen, healthcare EVP, Marina Maher Communications, says firms must realize that any such addition means they'll have to integrate staffers quickly. She advocates pairing the new employees with someone experienced in the organization.
"As an agency, it is incumbent upon you to get them the training they need," Svensen says, adding that more intensive training is likely necessary for senior staffers who have just joined. "You've got to give people the core vocabulary and [teach] the ins and outs of an FDA-regulated environment."
"In most cases, there's a clear preference for healthcare-agency experience. But I'd encourage people without direct experience in healthcare or PR to consider entering or transitioning to the field," says Paul Oestreicher, US health and pharmaceuticals director for Hill & Knowlton, via e-mail. "Yes, there are courses and seminars - internal and external - to help ground people in the field. However, initiative and resourcefulness are the keys."
"A lot of [that determination] will be based on problems they've solved for clients in the past," Wadler says. "That tells us if someone is capable of taking on a healthcare client's challenges."
Svensen also advocates complete transparency with clients.
"You need to tell them, 'We're bringing this person in because of what he or she brings,'" she says. "And promise that you'll get them smart on [the market]."
Given healthcare's recent embrace of consumer-marketing tactics, Wadler says differentiation becomes even more vital.
"It depends on how they're able to provide counsel for the client's strategic communications needs," she says. "There's less concern that they know the biology of an oncology product. You find there are all kinds of disciplines - corporate reputation, consumer marketing, science writing, and medical education - in healthcare."
"You want to bring in views that clients are not getting someplace else," Pitts says.
Those from industries with science and regulation issues are likely to fare well
The more senior a new hire is, the more necessary it is to quickly immerse them in industry jargon and trends
Firms must be able to elucidate to clients why this neophyte is joining the firm