Johnston is described as a person of substance, with her approach supported by data-driven insights and empathy, combined with tenacity. Highlights of her work include encouraging Pfizer UK to work with bloggers for the first time, with great success; and leading a social listening exercise about reproductive medicine, which informed a social-media strategy that spurred a 77 per cent increase in followers for one client.
Judge's comment: "Annie clearly has had a lot of impact already, very early on in her career. She sounds like a real leader of the future."
How does working in PR differ from your expectations?
I imagined everyone working in PR would be like Eddy from Absolutely Fabulous – fanciful and eccentric. So as an introvert, I was relieved to find myself surrounded by a variety of people, from journalists to doctoral scientists. This mix of skills, experiences and personalities is key, as our health is largely determined by ingrained and complex behaviours. Identifying and changing these behaviours requires different perspectives and ways of thinking.
Describe your experience of working in PR during the COVID-19 crisis.
Due to regulations, healthcare PR can be slower to adapt and deliver than other sectors, but COVID-19 has proven that, when needed, we can be agile to help patients. I’ve spent the past few months speaking to patient groups to understand their needs and how we can best support them creatively during the pandemic. Meetings like this which would have normally taken months to organise can now be turned around in a matter of weeks by streamlining our approach and working digitally. This has been a really positive change – I will strongly advocate for this kind of agile working to become part of the new normal in healthcare PR.
How (if at all) will the COVID-19 crisis change the PR industry?
COVID-19 has caused a major shift in people’s priorities, with a greater focus on health, families and home. What this means for PR is that we must continuously adapt to these changing priorities. People may become more receptive to messaging about their physical and mental wellbeing, or media may become more interested in real life hero stories over celebrity influencers. While it’s hard to make predictions at this point, campaigns which worked well in the past may no longer resonate with our target audiences so we must be prepared to adapt.
What one thing above all would you change about the PR industry?
Big data is a growing trend in PR to generate insights and measure success. While there are many advantages in using big data to analyse social trends or sentiments, small data is equally important for gathering ‘on the ground’ insights on a human scale. By dedicating time to speak with individuals, we can test ideas and use this small data to shape our communications for a larger audience. I’d like to see the industry value small data more and see it as complementary to big data.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
Since joining the PR industry, I’ve gained a breadth of knowledge and experience. In five years’ time I would like to have found a niche in healthcare PR which I am particularly passionate about and can specialise in, whether that be patient advocacy or influencer marketing. While I enjoy the variety of healthcare PR, it’s important for me to find an area where I can become a leader, support the upskilling of others and create change.
How do you switch off from work?
Working with complex science and in-depth patient insights is what I love most about my job, but it can be mentally and emotionally draining. My guilty pleasure is watching trash TV – anything from the Kardashians to Yummy Mummies. Watching RuPaul’s Drag Race also keeps me up-to-date with the latest slang – essential for my patient advocacy work with a drag queen influencer.