'Measurement is a challenge' - Big Interview: Health PR expert Farah Al Alami

Health PR expert Farah Al Alami, chief communications officer at United Eastern Medical Services (UEMedical), outlines internal comms and challenges facing the health PR market in the Middle East.

Health PR expert Farah Al Alami
Health PR expert Farah Al Alami

Tell us about some of the differences between working in in-house communications rather than for an agency?

Personally, I have never worked in an agency. However, from my work with agencies, I believe they are more into specialisation, where the client would deal with probably one or two account managers, but those client-servicing members would work at the back-end with another handful of specialists who specialise in specific functions. Agencies may also have wider access to media outlets and third-party vendors. However, when communications are led in-house with the right and ideal talent, jewels can be created.

In-house teams come in with more understanding of the brand and the real needs of the organisation. There is no way to live without the support of agencies in our field in some areas, especially with the difficulties we may find sometimes finding the right talent, and are sometimes more cost-effective.

I transformed our department in the past three years to become almost fully in-house except for the creative/branding function and project-based events; and it has been working perfectly with our in-house talent. I also believe we get more done when we speak and have this direct relationship with journalists, and when we communicate with our followers and patients on social media.

How do you think in-house comms in the Middle East differs compared to elsewhere in the world?

I wouldn’t compare from country-to-country but probably from sector-to-sector or organisation-to-organisation. And here I am referring to structuring. In some organisations, communications sits on the leadership table with a strategic role reporting to the CEO directly, and in others, it falls under operations, where I believe it would be more of implementation rather than strategising.

In other organisations, it comes under the strategy department with little access to the CEO and top management. There is no black and white though. I come from the school of having communications on the leadership table with a direct reporting line to the CEO. And I was lucky enough to be part of organisations that believe in the importance of communications and PR with superb CEOs.

What are some of the challenges you think the Middle East presents, that perhaps the industry doesn’t experience elsewhere?

One of the challenges I would mention is PR measurement. While there are lots of studies or tools to do it, I believe we never could get accurate answers on how a campaign went or an event unless there was direct revenue from the campaign such as a discounted rate on a service. Speaking about hospitals and medical centres, it is extremely difficult to assess what communication tool worked perfectly or how many patients turned up at the clinic as a result of a campaign.

People visiting the hospital or medical center when asked why did they choose us or how did they hear about us, psychologically their first answer would be that they heard about it from a relative or was recommended by a friend – this does not mean that they were not exposed to the integrated marketing campaign that included advertising, digital media, community outreach events, media interviews or features, and emailers for example – which could have helped them with making a decision to visit this particular hospital for their healthcare needs. It is also all about the integration of the many functions we do. There is no single tactic that works perfectly for a specific objective, but multiple tactics that jointly would."

Are there any areas that PR needs to be improved?

I think we can still do more in digital media and probably increase the number of Arabic media outlets and to have more Arabic content developed. Also, I would want to bring up the fact of having some mix between pure PR and advertising and advertorials. I believe when financials are discussed, it wouldn’t be PR anymore. Those two should not be mixed. Unfortunately, globally there is an increasing number of media outlets that are based only on paid content. We lack to see in ‘some’ areas actual PR. Some stories are strong enough to be on first pages without paying for it. The story and writing style accounts. Also, with the rise in social media bloggers, I would wish to see hospitals at least more rationale in choosing the right bloggers to work with, and when it comes to health education or raising awareness on diseases it doesn’t get commercial. It all depends again on improving the content and choosing the right blogger to collaborate with.

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