The Do’s and Don’t of Effective Communications for Healthcare Organizations

Updated on February 14, 2024

Public Relations is a powerful tool for managing and enhancing a healthcare organization’s reputation, defining a company’s identity, and communicating a business’s mission and execution to its most important stakeholders. 

There are many things that PR can do – but it’s important to also keep in mind what it cannot do. While a well-rounded PR strategy is a crucial element to a healthcare company’s success, it goes hand-in-hand with understanding what other levers should be pulled in order to build a bulletproof, complementary business strategy.  

What PR Can Do:

A key foundation for any communication strategy should be to build and manage reputation. PR shapes and enhances a healthcare organization’s reputation by crafting and controlling the narrative, managing crises effectively, and promoting key messages—which are important for such a highly regulated industry. These strategic efforts are deployed constantly, taking different and tailored forms depending on the specific goal, campaign, product, or executive. 

While the tactics are varied, the goals are the same – effectively communicate the company’s mission and activity by turning its executives and science experts into storytellers, spokespeople into cross-industry thought leaders, and external and internal communications materials into consistent reinforcements of the organization’s good work. 

A large part of building reputation within the healthcare industry is fostering relations with important tastemakers in the media. PR specialists can establish and maintain relationships with healthcare  journalists and media outlets, increasing the likelihood of positive media coverage for their organization. A good PR agency acts as a relationship extender, utilizing their long-earned contacts to the benefit of its clients and providing guidance on how to handle each interaction with the media. Working on the PR side of the medical field is one of many careers in healthcare administration that are vital to the success of any healthcare operation.

The development and maintenance of these relationships, especially when there is no specific announcement or news that a company wants to get coverage around, goes a long way in securing those sought-after profile pieces, positive word of mouth amongst journalists who move amongst publications or freelance, and in the privilege of a direct line to a journalist when there is specific news to share. 

The media is not the only important audience for an organization to communicate with—a good PR strategy is surround-sound, involving tailored messaging for and engagement with various stakeholders – clients, employees, investors, and the healthcare community. Building positive relationships with these groups contribute to overall organizational success.

Beyond day-to-day PR activities, organizations also need to have a plan in place for when a crisis strikes, which happens frequently in healthcare.  PR plays a crucial role in managing and mitigating crises – the development of crisis communications plans and preparedness exercises help teams move swiftly to respond when an issue arises, navigate challenging situations, and – importantly – have the ear of key journalists to have honest discussions in the effort to control the narrative. For example, PR can help with messaging and fielding media and investor inquiries in events such as a data breach, futile clinical trials, or personnel issues.

Aside from the activities PR is most known for – messaging, crisis management, and media engagement – PR professionals generate content including press releases, fact sheets, speeches, byline articles, website copy, social media posts, and more to disseminate key messages and information, contributing to brand awareness and visibility.

What PR Can’t Do: 

First and foremost, PR cannot guarantee positive coverage. While PR can influence media coverage, it cannot guarantee positive outcomes. Journalists maintain independence and may choose to cover stories based on their editorial judgment. A good PR agency respects this and understands the ins and outs of the newsroom, editorial structure, and can have open conversations with their contacts on behalf of their clients to understand the sentiment of potential coverage.

PR also cannot fix fundamental organizational issues. PR can help manage and communicate during crises, but it cannot fix underlying organizational problems. For sustained positive public perception, organizations must address root issues.

For healthcare companies that are public, PR does not have the ability to control the stock price. Public perception is shaped by various factors, and external events may impact how the public views an organization – and if a company is public, the value of its stock price. While a press release might trigger trading, the only thing that truly influences stock price – positively or negatively – is company execution. 

As part of company execution, it’s important to understand that PR cannot replace marketing. PR and marketing are distinct disciplines. PR focuses on building relationships and managing reputation, while marketing is more directly concerned with promoting products or services – the messaging, goals, and metrics are different, albeit related. PR cannot substitute for a comprehensive marketing strategy, but a well-run healthcare organization has PR and marketing working hand-in-hand.

Finally, PR cannot provide instant results. Building and maintaining a positive reputation takes time, especially because healthcare is a crowded industry. PR efforts may not yield immediate results, and it’s important to invest in long-term strategies for sustained success.

While the above outlines ‘can’ and ‘can’t’ do, by nature, PR professionals are doers – give them a problem, and they will try their hardest to solve it. It’s why an agency that is in tune with its strengths, can align a communications strategy with an organization’s business goals. PR professionals also know the right questions to ask, which decision-makers to have in the room, and when to facilitate the discussions to involve other disciplines, making them  indispensable to any  healthcare organization, public or private. 

Megan Kernan
Megan Kernan
Vice President at ICR Westwicke

Megan Kernan is Vice President at ICR Westwicke.