-Natalie Asorey, program lead, CJCxNYC, University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications
-Jackson Budinger, senior director of comms, The Trevor Project
-Ann Marie Gothard, VP, global corporate media relations, Henry Schein
-Tenee Hawkins, EVP, head of Kaleidoscope, GCI Health
-Jessica Orozco Guttlein, SVP for policy and communications, The Hispanic Federation
-Manan Shah, VP, global health equity and policy partnerships, Bristol Myers Squibb (BMS)
-Marissa Solan, director, US external communications, Haleon
-Adrienne Verrilli, VP of comms, Planned Parenthood Federation of America
Engagement is a strength that communicators bring to bear across the board. In the healthcare space, though, that importance is magnified because ensuring all communities have access to healthcare information can save lives. That is often the first step to reaching people and changing patient behavior.
“You don’t have to wear a white coat to do life-saving work,” notes Tenee Hawkins, EVP at GCI Health and head of Kaleidoscope, the agency’s multicultural practice. She has seen this firsthand on numerous occasions, including when a man approached her at a community screening to tell her that attending a similar event alerted his wife to her alarmingly high blood pressure. They had only found out about the event through consistent communications efforts. And the discovery led to life-saving treatment for her kidney disease.
Clearly, well-crafted messaging and meaningful activations can make a huge impact on patients.
Adrienne Verrilli, VP of comms at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, explains that since her organization is often many patients’ first entry into the healthcare system, creating messaging that resonates with them is critical. Her team focuses on creating campaigns that position the organization as a “trusted messenger by leveraging community involvement in order to get patients access to the care that they need,” she explains.
Cultural and linguistic competency is imperative to connecting with the right audience, adds Jessica Orozco Guttlein, SVP for policy and communications at The Hispanic Federation. Participants in the panel agreed that meaningful messaging starts with listening.
For Manan Shah, VP of global health equity and policy partnerships at Bristol Myers Squibb, effective communications start with research done in the communities he is working to reach.
“I literally roll up my sleeves, go into the community, sit down with patient groups, and get them to tell me their story because I need to hear from them,” he shares, noting that these instances are “the days of my job that I absolutely love the most.”
“When I go back to headquarters,” he continues, “I can share that story, bring that voice forward and pinpoint what we're doing wrong or need to look at differently.”
(l-r): Hawkins and Verrilli (all photos courtesy of Chris Farber)
Understanding cultural differences is critical
Tuning into what people say on social media can also inform comms strategies.
“We need to find ways to insert ourselves into that culture and build trust,” asserts Marissa Solan, director of US external communications at Haleon.
Understanding cultural norms enabled one of Brazil's biggest football clubs, Sport Club Recife, to create the Immortal Fan campaign to encourage its supporters to become organ donors.
“In Brazil, it's always been taboo to donate your organs,” notes Natalie Asorey, program lead, CJCxNYC, University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. “The top barrier to organ donation was family authorization.” Effectively tapping into the values and passion of sports fans has led to a massive rise in the number of life-changing transplants and has reduced waiting lists for organs in the area to almost zero.
It's not just words that matter
Panelists stress how important wording and intention can be when reaching an intended audience. They urge communicators to direct their outreach to people, rather than to a “demographic.”
“If you're trying to engage a community, it's not just about the words, it's about the underlying messaging,” counsels Orozco Guttlein.
Merely translating materials into a different language isn’t enough.
“It's about understanding the culture and community you are speaking to,” she continues. “As a Latino community, we are not a monolith. There are so many different subsets of Latinos and they all need to be represented and their perspectives heard.”
That also means making sure that content is accessible, regardless of channel. “Closed captioning is so important,” Asorey reminds us. “AI makes it a lot easier, but we still have to double check because it's not always accurate.”
Participants also explored how the nuances of intersectionality can affect messaging. Hawkins always reminds her colleagues to be mindful of “the layered nature, experiences and identities as we reach out to these audiences.”
(l-r): Orozco Guttlein and Budinger
Trust is tantamount
Roundtable participants agree that building trust should be the long-game focus of any communications strategy, noting that respecting people is a huge part of that effort.
Asorey advises communicators to treat patients as collaborators and find ways to bring them into the storytelling process. “As communicators, we have to be careful not to exploit people for their stories,” she says. She continues by emphasizing that “instead of using the word ‘audience,’ we talk about ‘actors’ because the former almost implies passivity.”
Jackson Budinger, senior director of communications at The Trevor Project, says part of her team’s goal is focused on “countering LGBTQ misinformation and disinformation and elevating the voices of the community without tokenizing or exploiting the community.”
The organization’s Learn With Love campaign was successful largely because of the respectful way it portrayed its subjects. Budinger went on to discuss a specific part of that video in which an 80-year-old grandfather, after years of not accepting nor speaking to his 14-year-old trans granddaughter, admitted embarrassment over the situation and a willingness to do the work to educate himself. To a person, the entire roundtable was visibly moved.
(l-r): Shah and Gothard
A culture-wide commitment to DE&I
Organizations that do the best job with multicultural communications are those that have made a commitment to DE&I as part of their corporate culture.
In fact, all participants agreed that DE&I lays the groundwork for strong multicultural work. “We can't do multicultural [communications] if we don't have an inclusive environment,” emphasizes Hawkins.
Planned Parenthood’s Be Seen values-based campaign, designed to introduce the organization to Black women and Latinas, works because the audience sees themselves in the organization, notes Verrilli.
“Representation and perspectives matter,” adds Orozco Guttlein. “DE&I is what we do. Multicultural is who we are.”
Another point emphasized during the roundtable was the importance and need for those who don’t belong to certain demographics to be allies. Budinger exemplifies this, as a non-LGTBQ person who works for the Trevor Foundation.
“Everything comes back to communication,” she notes. “We can make up for lack of the same lived experiences with humility, respect and boundaries – and by doing our jobs as communicators as best as we can.”
The ability to ask questions and the desire to truly learn about others is also key to being a truly inclusive communicator – and ally.
“People are hesitant to ask questions because they don't want to come across as insensitive,” says Ann Marie Gothard, VP of global corporate media relations at Henry Schein, “but understanding starts with asking that question.”
(l-r): Solan and Asorey
ATTRACTING REPRESENTATIVE TALENT
A section of the roundtable conversation was dedicated to solving another major obstacle to health equity – the issues with recruiting into the healthcare comms space. All agree that comms teams need to be representative of the audiences they want to reach. That starts with a diverse recruiting pipeline. Panelists shared the following thoughts on how that can be achieved.
•Asorey: “Healthcare communications needs more faculty representation and visibility at the university level so students can see themselves in the industry.”
•Orozco Guttlein: “Exposure through internships and recruiting for internships in the communities that you all want to reach is important.”
•Budinger: “The pipeline needs to start at an early age. And we need to pay people for internships since many people can’t afford to work for free.”
•Solan: “Offering important benefits and initiatives are signals to candidates. As a healthcare organization, we have to walk the walk.”
•Hawkins: “People can't be what they don't see, so leaders with lived experience must be elevated. Also, don’t get stuck in a formulaic model when it comes to recruiting and hiring.”
•Verrilli: “Pay it forward. Someone gave me a chance. So, meet with and talk to people who are looking to change their careers or young people who are learning about the industry.”
•Shah: “Bring visibility to the healthcare comms profession. You don't know what that next generation is going to do, so create those opportunities for them.”
•Gothard: “We really have to work at demystifying the job of communicators. People really don’t understand what we do.”
GCI Health’s Kaleidoscope practice counsels clients on integrating cultural representation into intentional communications to build trust and drive action. Kaleidoscope delivers breadth and depth for authentic communications that resonate with diverse audiences.