By: Cheyenne Oakes
Most of my knowledge of public relations came from seeing flashy campaigns on television and social media that included athletes, celebrities and influential figures.When I first became interested in public relations in high school, I was unsure of all the opportunities within different sectors of the communications industry. Throughout college, I have learned more about public relations and have quickly realized that I want my future work to have a meaningful impact on lives. After experiencing my own health challenges beginning in the summer of 2020, I developed a deep passion for patient advocacy and began looking for ways to combine my love for public relations with my interest in improving the patient care process within healthcare. Through discussions with mentors and peers, I learned of healthcare communications, but quickly became aware that many students are unsure of how public relations fits into the healthcare sector and what opportunities there are for young professionals within the sector.
What does public relations in healthcare look like?
Every kind of business needs a public relations strategy in order to effectively communicate to its audience. The healthcare sector is no different. Whether it be hospitals, long-term care facilities or pharmaceutical companies, they all utilize public relations to promote their product or service. And for many businesses within healthcare, the goal of effective public relations is to benefit the patient.
Public relations within healthcare, also known as healthcare communications, is the use of communication methods to educate an audience on health issues or to promote services and products by a business such as a hospital or pharmaceutical company (Communications Strategy Group, 2021). Although traditional communications methods such as press releases and social media are often used to reach audiences within healthcare, public relations campaigns within this sector are much more likely to have a direct impact on audiences’ health and well-being compared to other sectors (Communications Strategy Group, 2021). Examples of public relations material within the healthcare sector include campaigns to raise awareness for certain conditions or diseases, hospital or health facility material to help prepare patients and families for upcoming stays, surgeries or procedures and traditional press and media releases by health businesses for announcements and crisis communications.
Take a look at the examples below of two different health communications campaigns from the Lupus Foundation of America and the Ad Council in partnership with the American Medical Association and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention that include materials to raise awareness for lupus and prediabetes, respectively. These campaign materials use traditional public relations tactics such as grabbing the reader’s attention with graphics and text hierarchy to inform the reader of potential symptoms of lupus as well as tips for reversing prediabetes.
The healthcare campaign below created by the McCANN Paris Agency in partnership with Spinneys Supermarket, the American University of Beirut Medical Center and the Lebanese Breast Cancer Foundation aimed to educate Lebanese women on how to perform a self-check breast exam by using the traditional techniques of baking bread. In Lebanese culture, women traditionally do not openly talk about their bodies, so the “Bread Exam” campaign strove to educate women while also remaining culturally aware. The campaign went viral on social media and was covered by several international media outlets. This campaign used traditional and non-traditional communication methods to help educate and raise awareness for breast cancer.
Campaign video from the “Bread Exam” campaign created the McCANN Paris in partnership with Spinneys Supermarket, the American University of Beirut Medical Center and the Lebanese Breast Cancer Foundation. (Video via, Little Black Book)
How does healthcare communications benefit patient care?
The ultimate goal of healthcare communications is not only to help businesses and companies succeed but also to benefit and improve patient care. One way this has been accomplished is through increased choice for the patient which can be communicated through health facilities’ social media channels.
In the “The In-Demand and Demanding Career of Healthcare Communicators” panel hosted by the West Virginia University Reed College of Media Integrate Online program and the West Virginia University Public Relations Student Society of America, Marketing Consultant at the University of Cincinnati, Maddie Ernst, explained the importance of health facilities using social media to effectively communicate to patients.
“We’re trying to increase awareness of these centers, really educate, on who we are and what makes us different, and really what makes us different is that academic piece,” Ernst said. “And then, how do we portray that on social media when it can be really technical.”
Ernst shared that patient stories and testimonials communicated through social media channels can be effective when health facilities are trying to reach potential new patients and ease the stress that may be associated with trying to choose the right doctor and facility for the patient’s needs.
“That’s like one of the biggest ways to kind of just talk about what makes us different and take such technical research terms and technologies and have it spoken by a patient,” Ernst said.
What are the benefits of a career in healthcare communications for young professionals?
While healthcare communications is a fast-growing sector of the communications industry, many students and young professionals are unaware of its benefits and how they can become involved.
Panelists from the “The In-Demand and Demanding Career of Healthcare Communicators” including Ernst; Senior Account Executive at FCB Health, Maya Tretheway; Marketing and Public Relations Director at Boone Memorial Hospital, Karlie Price; and Director of Marketing and Communications at West Virginia University School of Public Health, Nikky Luna shared their experiences of working in healthcare communications and the benefits it has as a career option for young professionals.
Each panelist works in a different style of healthcare communications including agencies for pharmaceutical companies, teaching hospitals, local hospitals and public health education. They shared that working for an agency consists of busy days with lots of deadlines, but also offers a chance to work on many accounts simultaneously. Panelists working for hospitals also shared the rewarding aspects of getting to tell patients’ stories through their work as well as sharing the constant innovations being made by healthcare professionals every day. All panelists agreed that working in healthcare communications has allowed them a career that feels bigger than themselves and offers them the opportunity to change lives.
Throughout the event, panelists emphasized that students do not need a strong background in healthcare in order to work in healthcare communications. Having the foundational skills of any communications professional such as writing and storytelling, as well as being open-minded and always ready to learn will help young professionals interested in healthcare communications create a solid basis for their career.
Although many students may be unaware of how public relations fits into the healthcare sector, the job opportunities offered by healthcare communications are vast and rewarding for young professionals. From traditional agency roles to in-house work for hospitals and health care facilities, the jobs within healthcare communications offer extensive opportunities for beginner public relations professionals to gain experience within the field while having a meaningful impact on the lives of patients. Working in healthcare communications does not require a strong background in healthcare-related fields and by using the foundational skills of any communications professional including storytelling, young professionals can connect with patients in order to improve the healthcare system for all.
Personally, I believe healthcare communications provides one of the best opportunities to use the skills I’ve learned in public relations strategy to make the world a better place. My hope is that more young public relations professionals become aware of healthcare communications and all that it has to offer, for the professional and for the patient.
Ad Council. (n.d.). Helpful lifestyle tips. Do I Have Prediabetes? Retrieved March 14, 2022, from https://doihaveprediabetes.org
Communications Strategy Group. (2021, Oct 12). Healthcare public relations: Ultimate guide to PR in a pandemic. https://wearecsg.com/healthcare-public-relations-ultimate-guide-to-pr-in-a-pandemic/
Little Black Book. (2021). The Bread Exam. https://www.lbbonline.com/work/53608
Lupus Foundation of America. (n.d.). What is lupus? Be Fierce, Take Control. Retrieved March 14, 2022, from https://befiercetakecontrol.org
West Virginia University School of Medicine. (2020, Jan 28). WVU Heart and Vascular Institute named Gold Center of Excellence for cardio-oncology program. WVU Medicine News. https://medicine.wvu.edu/News/Story?headline=wvu-heart-and-vascular-institute-named-gold-center-of-excellence-for-cardio-oncology-program_0
[WVU Marketing Communications]. (2022, March 10). The in-demand and demanding career of healthcare communicators. [Video]. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mlULpAsSIVA
WVU Medicine. (n.d.). Preparing for your test. J.W. Ruby Memorial Hospital. Retrieved March 14, 2022, from https://wvumedicine.org/ruby-memorial-hospital/services/wvu-specialty-clinics/radiology/preparing-for-your-test/