Ruth Wheatley, account director at firstlight PR, tells us how opportunities in PR have been created by the need for expertise in highly regulated and specialist sectors like healthcare.
“There are too many PRs!” They say. “Do journalists even pick up the phone to agencies these days?” They ask.
These statements may ring true in some corners of the media industry. But, in healthcare, the role of experienced and expert communications professionals has never been more important.
Newsrooms worldwide have been depleted over the last few years, and smaller teams of journalists have taken on wider briefs. Experienced science, healthcare and medical correspondents have not always been replaced when they have moved on, leaving increasingly time-poor generalists to cover this important but complex area.
This is not to say that there is no expertise in the national press. We work with some journalists at national newspapers (and many within medical trade outlets) who are incredibly experienced in dealing with scientific information, and many have a great deal of knowledge about innovations in medical treatment, as well as strong contacts within the NHS and the pharmaceutical industry. It is always an enjoyable experience to talk through a story with them and they appreciate our role as much as anyone, as we are able to explain the finer details of clinical studies and answer more complex questions about indications and trial design.
As I look around the firstlight office, I see scientists, linguists and former political advisers. In just this small agency, we have decades of experience in every disease area you can think of, every access system in the world and have kept up with each advance in medical research.
The PR world, across agency and in-house, is full of these people – and we’ve also picked up a number of those former expert journalists, too. With this background and understanding, and the ability to communicate very complicated science to a lay audience as well as a passion for our subject, we can be an asset to a journalist who wants to cover a story about the latest immunotherapy combination, but hasn’t the time or capacity to gain a deep appreciation of mechanisms of action and p-values.
In an industry as heavily regulated as pharmaceuticals, it’s also essential to understand the rules within which companies, and journalists, must operate. All healthcare PRs go through a significant number of hours of compliance training during their careers. We are experts in the clauses of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) Code, the process the European Medicines Agency (EMA) goes through to evaluate new medicines, and what an US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) breakthrough designation actually means. We know how precise we have to be and how clinical trial results should be presented. We know how to reference every single point in a press release, but also how to tell the story despite the jargon.
It’s this expertise that means when we speak to a journalist who may usually be a feature writer for the lifestyle section of a newspaper, we can help them to navigate data points and access policies, as well as pulling out the news hook and putting them in touch with charities who can tell the patient’s side of the story.
Everyone has some interest in health news and we’re increasingly obsessed with our own health and wellbeing. The media keeps us up to date with the latest research and innovation, but healthcare PRs have a vital part to play in getting information from the petri dish to the page.
- Ruth Wheatley is an account director at firstlight PR and she currently works across the following sectors: oncology, neurology and rare diseases.