How the pandemic accelerated a healthcare comms agency boom

Health and pharma communication was already a significant practice area for major PR firms - COVID-19 brought it even more center stage at the world’s largest agencies.

Hill+Knowlton featured celebrities including John Legend in Walgreens' PR push for vaccine hesitant groups as part of an integrated WPP agency team.

Nearing the two-year mark of the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. has adjusted to a new normal. Discussions about mask wearing, vaccine approvals and virus transmission rates are pervasive, and the vocabulary of the average American has expanded to include phrases such as “vaccine efficacy,” “monoclonal antibodies” and “health equity.”

More aspects of American life are filtered through the lens of healthcare than ever before, and business owners who wanted to survive the hit to their sales had to adjust. Procedures such as mask mandates, regular disinfecting, social distancing and contactless delivery were all tools in a business' arsenal.  

The largest public relations firms in the world similarly adapted as they shifted their practices to prioritize healthcare communications and increasingly take on more healthcare clients. The change has paid dividends as the country continues to claw its way out from under the recession caused by the pandemic. 

Interpublic Group agency Golin saw revenue from healthcare work rise 18% year to date.  The agency’s healthcare practice and Virgo Health, Golin’s healthcare communications agency, brought on 33 new employees in 2021 just to handle the extra work, according to Cori McKeever, Golin’s global president of healthcare.

"Across the sector, a number of clients were re-evaluating programs in the very beginning of COVID as work pivoted to how life sciences could tackle the COVID problem overall," McKeever says. "The landscape of health was permanently impacted by everything that's happened over the past 18 months." 

FleishmanHillard saw a similar jump of 15% in revenue year over year from its healthcare practice and won close to $30 million in new client work before Q4 2021, according to Anne de Schweinitz, Fleishman's global managing director of healthcare. Healthcare is the firm's largest individual practice at almost a quarter of the work the agency does.  

Edelman's healthcare practice accounts for 21% of the agency's global revenue — or more than $176 million annually — according to Kirsty Graham, Edelman's global chair of health. The practice also grew 19% in revenues year over year in 2021.

However, the increase in client work and revenue are from more than bolstering previous healthcare practices, says Graham. Communicators now look at all of their messaging through a healthcare lens. 

“If we learned anything over the last year as individuals, as institutions, as a firm, it’s that health has become everyone’s business,” she says. “If you don’t have your health, all the other things really won’t make up for that."

As a result, the biggest change of the last 18 months has been the expansion of healthcare to cover all aspects of communications, from medical to pharmaceutical to corporate to consumer. 

Agency healthcare teams have partnered with their corporate communications teams to address tough subjects such as employee well-being, self care and mental health.

Edelman has been working with its client executive teams to address these issues.

“There’s an awareness now that being a top CEO or a top company, not just in healthcare, means you have to be thinking about the healthcare and mental health of your team," Graham notes, adding that transparency and support from the top is key. 

Agencies such as Ketchum have prioritized healthcare communications for their clients in CPG, food and beverage, financial communications and technology, says Neera Chaudhary Ketchum's North American president. 

Ketchum began working on a business unit for client Mastercard called Mastercard Healthcare Solutions, which is helping healthcare providers bridge the growing technology gap using analytics, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity threat detection and digital identity tools. These tools become paramount in an industry where thousands of dollars can be charged for a single hospital visit. 

“People of all industries have made health a priority for their products and corporate reputation,” Chaudhary says. “The pandemic has really made a lot of companies, both inside and outside the healthcare category reassess their business model and organizational design.” 

Helping communicators along in this endeavor was the change in the breadth of coverage by journalists and media, according to McKeever. 

“COVID made every reporter a healthcare reporter regardless of what their beat was, so reporters have a different understanding and interaction with healthcare and health messaging,” she says. 

With the increase in coverage of pandemic and health-related topics came an opportunity to educate the media about health topics that weren’t as widely covered pre-pandemic. 

Hill+Knowlton spent time at the start of the pandemic helping reporters translate what was happening in the healthcare space for consumption by the general public. 

“It was a real opportunity for us to assist our clients to explain the science they were presenting — whether that was COVID-related or cutting through that with important health content — in a way that really resonated,” says AnnaMaria DeSalva, global chairman and CEO of Hill+Knowlton.  

The great public health campaigns have shown again and again that you have to have high integrity and authentic conversations with people in the community that are respected and trusted.

- AnnaMaria DeSalva, Hill+Knowlton Strategies

As the country begins to move past the pandemic, companies in the health sector are looking to capitalize on the desire of a newly health-educated media to cover non-COVID healthcare news. 

“There’s a different level of sophistication among reporters who have a different knowledge base they’re working from now, which leads to different interaction between us and those reporters and the strategies that we create,” says McKeever, who added she’s seen a shift back to public service and chronic health stories. “Twelve months ago new approvals of medicines getting top tier media coverage absolutely wouldn't have happened.” 

Bringing healthcare to the forefront of the public eye has also opened up the field to scrutiny by those not as familiar with how the science behind the industry works, creating a breeding ground for misinformation. 

BCW has focused on hiring and curating staff who understand clinical data and can easily translate it for journalists and stakeholders at large, says Rachi Govil, EVP healthcare practice lead for BCW North America. 

“There’s a lot of interest all of a sudden in how quickly a drug can come to market, and the fact that people are talking about emergency use authorization as normal language is something we're helping our clients adjust to," Govil says.

There’s a pressure to be able to explain that data, why it matters, why an FDA advisory committee is important and the value of the regulatory chain.

- Rachi Govil, BCW

The sooner a communicator can get ahead of the information and make sure a client is being understood by the public, the less chance there is of information being misunderstood or twisted. 

Hill+Knowlton saw this first-hand while working with Walgreens Boots Alliance as part of a larger integrated WPP partnership with the company. As one of the most widespread vaccination sites, WBA had to “meet people where they are,” says DeSalva. 

The company focused on churches and Black, Latinx and global media outlets to encourage vaccination among vaccine hesitant minority groups. It also used celebrities, including President Barack Obama and actor and playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda, as a call to action and to help dispel myths.  

“The great public health campaigns have shown again and again that you have to have high integrity and authentic conversations with people in the community that are respected and trusted,” DeSalva says. 

Increased coverage of the race to a viable coronavirus vaccine has also re-centered conversations about the pharmaceutical sector. 

Instead of news cycles dominated by a company being sued for its part in the opioid crisis or the soaring prices of life-saving medications, drug companies such as Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca have taken center stage by offering life-saving vaccines and Merck for creating COVID antiviral treatments.  

“Pharmaceutical companies have been the poster child for all the things that you could point toward being wrong with the system,” says Chaudhary. “The pandemic has allowed them to rise up to be the champion and break out of that dark shadow of being big, bad pharma.” 

Instead, a change in public perception has given drug companies a chance to highlight the work they do in education, awareness and therapeutics that help combat diseases.  

Shannon Walsh, president of North America, PR, for Ogilvy Health, says the temporary “halo effect” created during the pandemic is the perfect time for companies to re-center their purpose and for communicators to encourage their clients to do so transparently. 

“The biggest thing for clients is making sure all your communications are transparent and that they’re laddering up to that North Star,” Walsh notes. “We need to figure out where they want to take a stance and then help them communicate their commitment to stakeholders.”

The largest conversation about purpose in the healthcare industry has involved health equity after the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others brought racial injustice to the forefront of the American social consciousness in 2020.

Ketchum has seen particular interest from companies such as UpHealth, a network of six health-tech solutions that uses technology to offer integrated care for underserved populations, including primary care kiosks with labs and diagnostics in rural areas of India and digital pharmacies and tele-interpretation solutions for Afghan refugees in the U.S.

“Our consultant teams are providing that strategic counsel to address the root causes of social determinants of health, whether it’s economic, education, food, community or physical environment,” Chaudhary says. “We are also helping them with items such as health literacy and reaching populations that are disproportionately affected by inequities by creating channels of access.”

BCW employees volunteer at BronxWorks Community Food Stands as healthcare and staff well-being have taken center stage during the pandemic.

Some companies have a particular interest in channeling their ESG space toward addressing these issues, making “connection points” between these underserved groups and what the company is good at, according to de Schweinitz. 

For instance, FleishmanHillard client and pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk partnered with actress and singer Queen Latifah in October for the It’s Bigger Than Me campaign, which aimed to destigmatize obesity with videos and online resources.

“There’s a lot of work going on there on the brand side, and we’re doing outreach to connect with audiences that have been overlooked,” says de Schweinitz. “It’s a chance to right some wrongs through charitable work and education.”

As the world continues to adjust to living with the social and economic fallout of a disease such as COVID-19, communicators and their clients know that the healthcare landscape has forever changed. 

Taking an integrated, hybrid approach is the only way forward, says BCW’s Govil.   

“The conversation that’s coming to life is from pandemic to endemic,” she continues. “How do we live with something that has been such a presence in our life? There remains some important unknowns, and we have to be ready for what we don't know so that we're successful in whatever the environment is.”

Healthcare communications gets high tech

The rapid advancement in technology during the COVID-19 pandemic was a boon for companies and communicators alike. In a few short months, more than one-third of employed Americans were working remotely, compared to just 6% before the pandemic, according to the National Council on Compensation Insurance. 

For communicators, that meant solving the problem of reaching an expanse of stakeholders — including their own employees — who were no longer in offices, commuting or going out to socialize.

The use of telehealth services became a new expectation as health systems and pharmacies rose to the challenge of making in-home and virtual care a normal part of the healthcare landscape, changes that should have been adopted much sooner, says  AnnaMaria DeSalva, global chairman and CEO of Hill+Knowlton. 

“It’s taken a crisis for us to really make virtual healthcare an everyday reality for many people,” DeSalva says. And it has fallen to communicators to bridge the gap between patient and caregivers. “It really draws on people like us to help understand their experiences and help create the change needed to evolve health systems.” 

Using virtual meeting programs such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams puts an emphasis on the importance of building relationships with employees and clients.

“Through the culture of Zoom, we’ve all gotten to know a lot more about each other, and from a client perspective, it reminds you that relationships are everything,” says Kirsty Graham, Edelman’s global chair of health. “It’s led to a lot of creativity and big-picture thinking, which you need to serve your clients well.” 

Technology has also revolutionized the research and development capabilities of the pharmaceutical sector. 

Ketchum is part of the Omnicom PR Group team working with Janssen R&D, which utilized data science to track and forecast the spread of COVID-19. Now JRD is using the same technology to tackle other infectious diseases. 

“It uses health tech and cloud computing to advance and expedite clinical trials, so we can get the results of the clinical trials faster,” says Neera Chaudhary, Ketchum’s North American president. “We can also track if a clinical trial is on the right track, and if it’s not bearing results we also know to stop before investing too many dollars.”

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