Healthcare PR 2.0 - Keeping Your Brand Healthy in 2011

The explosive growth of new consumer-driven online media in recent years has re-shaped the future of public relations. The range of new technology and online channels have given birth to a new public who has moved from being a passive consumer of controlled media (web 1.0) to that of a sharing media environment where anyone can be a news editor (web 2.0).

This shift to an era of digital media is nothing short of a revolution – a revolution that Ireland is fast embracing. And while the use of digital channels has been largely adopted by FMCG brands, pharmaceutical companies have been much slower to adopt many of these trends. This is largely due to the legal and regulatory environment that pharmaceutical companies must adhere to, but is compounded by the lack of best practice guidelines on appropriate online communications. But it doesn’t really matter whether you want your brand or campaign to be involved in social media, because it already is and pharmaceutical and healthcare companies must find a way to join the conversation.

The US, while operating in a totally different regulatory environment where direct-to-consumer communication about prescription medication is allowed, offers the most clarity in terms of understanding the power of digital channels. The rapid growth in social media in recent years has seen the phenomenon develop into dedicated portals for specific issues, one such area being medical social networking. Sites such as Patients Like Me enable people with the same medical conditions to interact with each other online. The site format encourages users to share information including the advice they receive from their doctor through to how effective their drug therapy is.

While Ireland is not as far advanced in terms of specific networking sites such as this, a perusal of Facebook which tripled in size in 2009 to 1.2 million Irish users, will reveal that a large portion of patient support groups in Ireland have dedicated pages where people can openly share their views on related issues. Patient support groups have recognised that this is where they can regularly and cost-effectively reach interested people on a given subject. The number of pharmaceutical companies that feature is far lower.

Another largely untapped trend that is here to stay is the use of mobile marketing. The mobile phone is expected to leapfrog the PC and television to become the first screen in people’s lives. You can see how this prediction might be recognised when you consider the mobile phone penetration in Ireland which is currently at 112%. The increase in 3G enabled mobile phones which allow for much speedier web browsing on the move has enabled the introduction of third party applications that are beginning to be recognised and developed by brands, as once downloaded to a phone will remain with the user indefinitely. In the future, the mobile phone could be used to assist with patient compliance or monitoring specific conditions with invaluable benefits to the patient.

Essentially, digital channels should be viewed as another weapon in your communications armoury and should be integrated into your overall campaign planning. The message that you communicate online should be the same as in any offline communication thereby adhering to the same guidelines set out by the Irish Pharmaceutical and Healthcare Association. With this in mind, your attention should turn to a number of digital rules to keep your brand healthy.

An integrated approach. If you’re involving digital in your campaign, integrate it into the planning from the start. Digital communication shouldn’t consist of a bolt-on component to your offline campaign, it should run throughout the campaign utilising the various online channels.

Know your audience. If you’re trying to reach 60 year old men with a disease awareness campaign, digital channels may be less compelling for this audience and should be ranked further down in terms of overall importance in the campaign. Of course, this has always been fundamental to any communications campaign.

A picture (or video) says a thousand words. Attention levels on the internet are far lower than with print media so to communicate your message effectively use far more images and video. YouTube is now the second largest search engine after Google so make sure your brand or campaign features on it.

Adopt an outside in approach. Don’t use digital channels to simply advertise your campaign. A press release that sits on a Facebook page will not engage the reader. If your message only benefits your brand or campaign, it will be rejected by your intended audience.

Stay true to the principles of social media. Social media is about sharing. While you might not be able to use all of the features and functions of social media, you should try to allow some level of customisation or interactivity for the end user if you wish for them to return.

Recognise the value of digital communications. Online communications is an incredibly cost-effective way of segmenting your message and audience to ensure that the most relevant information reaches each group. For instance, a breast cancer awareness campaign can be tailored so as a woman who is just interested in signs and symptoms can read different material to that of a woman who has been diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. This is not just common sense, it demonstrates integrity on the part of your campaign in communicating a sensitive message.

The US Food and Drug Administration are currently reviewing the area of social media with a view to providing guidance on appropriate use of social media and this will undoubtedly provide a clearer picture for the future. In the meantime though, your brand or campaign can’t afford to dismiss digital media out of hand. It is here to stay and participation is key if you want to stay relevant to the new consumer.