As healthcare PR evolves, so should employees

The definition of healthcare PR has expanded beyond traditional product marketing and now encompasses such areas as public affairs, health policy, and financial communications.

The definition of healthcare PR has expanded beyond traditional product marketing and now encompasses such areas as public affairs, health policy, and financial communications.

New areas include understanding the science behind a new drug; working with advocacy groups to get reimbursement for its delivery system; and in the biotech arena, agencies must also communicate clinical-trial results to investors.

"I think some of the distinction these days is the significant confluence of healthcare and healthcare public affairs," says Jeffrey Sandman, CEO of Hyde Park Communications, a healthcare public affairs firm. "It's the environment writ-large. Agencies need to understand how the world of public affairs influences their clients... because it affects their bottom line and reputation."

Servicing these sophisticated client accounts requires agencies to hire employees with multiple specialized skills sets - even as healthcare is already one of the hardest fields to staff.

"Very rarely do you have one person who has everything you need," says Eve Dryer, president of Vox Medica, a healthcare agency servicing public policy accounts.

Dryer notes that fewer people are being trained as generalists, and many PR pros are specializing earlier in their careers. Agencies, she adds, need to be committed to making long-term investments in cross-disciplinary training.

"My biggest success [in hiring] is that I don't care where people are [geographically located]," she says, adding that the agency readily works with staffers remotely.

The expansion of the healthcare field has created more jobs than existed just a few years ago, exacerbating the talent crunch, notes Sharon Rundberg, EVP and director of internal resources at Dorland Global Public Relations.

The agency has experienced rapid growth over the past few years, but recently had to interview more than 300 candidates to fill 15 spots.

Rundberg says nontraditional hires have helped fill that void. In addition to recruiting from healthcare marketing and ad agencies, Dorland has hired candidates with backgrounds in social issues, IR, or the corporate world.

David Schull, SVP and MD of Euro RSCG Life PR and Noonan Russo, notes that account teams often include a mix of former journalists, investment bankers, and lab technicians.

"We look for people with science backgrounds, healthcare backgrounds, but not necessarily in communications," he says. "Put them together [and] you have the ingredients for a successful team."

A rigorous training program in regulatory issues and medical writing style can also help ease the transition to a PR career, notes Eleanor Petigrow, a creative director at the Chandler Chicco Agency who has contributed to the hiring process.

CCA has hired not only former nurses and drug sales reps, but also candidates who have worked on Capitol Hill or even in the performing arts. "We make the decision about whether it's worth the investment [in training]," she says. "And often we decide that it is."

Key points:

Look in nontraditional fields. The critical thinking that makes someone successful in one industry will often translate well to PR

Network with not only PR groups, but also health policy and advocacy groups

Staff accounts strategically with multiple staffers who have diverse skill sets

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