Jennifer Brantley
Jennifer Brantley

It’s a challenging time to be a professional communicator, but it’s never been more important that we do our jobs well, especially for those of us who work for healthcare providers or with them as strategic consultants.

Setting the pandemic aside for the moment, the PR profession for the past several years has been increasingly pivoting away from the traditional ways of creating messages and engaging with audiences. We’ve had to adapt to executing across myriad platforms that have emerged from the ever-changing media landscape, and to develop new ways to vie for narrowing attention spans of diverse and sometimes polarized targets.

“We must cut through the noise!” has become a frequent battle cry in the past decade. How to do that, especially in the times we’re living through, has become the rub.

The COVID-19 pandemic is driving “the noise” to new volumes, and the healthcare industry—providers, insurance companies, scientific researchers, et al—are at ground zero in providing information, services and hope to a diverse audience hungry for details and fatigued with it all. I’m up for the challenge.

This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Oct. '20 Healthcare & Medical PR Magazine (view PDF version)

I began my communications career more than 25 years ago as an intern, and almost since day one I’ve worked with healthcare-related clients, from hospitals to physician groups, to health insurance companies. Early on, I worked on copy for mammogram brochures, wrote news releases on the first baby born in a new year and helped plan groundbreaking events. Later, I jumped into the fire of crisis management, worked on challenging internal communication projects and led teams as they juggled many balls in the air at once. It’s been a labor of love.

At MP&F Strategic Communications, we’ve always preached “understand your audience”: how they like to get information, what they want to know and what you want them to do. It’s something I was taught early on, and I’ve always endeavored to do just that. In some cases, however, that’s easier said than done.

Becoming the audience

There are many ways to understand your audience, beginning with solid research, both quantitative and qualitative. Sometimes it’s just a matter of taking the time to transfer what you already know through observation. If you’re writing copy regarding healthcare topics for seniors, ask yourself, “What would my mother or grandmother want to know?

But nothing beats the real thing. A little over a year ago, I was on the other side of healthcare communications. It started with three words: “You have cancer.” And a few months into my treatment, the words: “There’s a pandemic, and you’re at high risk.”

My journey since has included fear, hope and perseverance. Along the way, my priority was getting information instead of providing it, and I will carry that with me the rest of my career as I help my healthcare clients know their audiences.

I was diagnosed with myxofibrosarcoma, a soft tissue tumor. I wish I could tell you how many cancer-related releases and brochures I’ve written over the years and the number of events I’ve planned around Cancer Survivors Day or free “insert cancer type here” screening. Never once did I consider it could be me.

My chemotherapy treatments started last fall and ended in January, followed by five weeks of radiation treatments. My surgery was scheduled for March 25, and on March 11, COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic.

I’d been working with one of my healthcare clients to develop a website whose single focus was on COVID-19. Being someone in the middle of cancer treatments, I was able to work with the client and our team to share what people at the highest risk were most concerned about. I used my experience to help develop FAQs and other tips to help educate our audiences. I knew people like me were scared, and I wanted to help deliver some peace of mind in our communications.

I had surgery on March 25, and I came back to work in April with the pandemic in full force. I needed physical therapy, but I didn’t want to leave my house. Thank goodness for telehealth. After having my first session, I realized I wasn’t prepared. I shared this with my team, and we helped our client deliver some tips for preparing for a telehealth appointment.

Here’s what I found out about healthcare communications by being on the other side:

  • These are real people we’re communicating with, and many aren’t well-versed when it comes to healthcare lingo. Keep it informational, but simple.
  • Try to put yourself in their shoes. Ask, “If this were me, what would I want to know?” How and where would I want to hear it?”
  • Don’t communicate down to them; communicate to them. You should think of them as a family member.
  • If you don’t have a personal experience around the topic or truly understand it, find someone who does. Seek their guidance.
  • Don’t be afraid to use your personal healthcare experience to help a client or your company better communicate with their audiences. After all, you’ve experienced it.

The road ahead

Healthcare communicators are facing a lot of uncertainties, and there are many challenges ahead. One of the big ones will be regarding the development and testing of a coronavirus vaccine. Will there be more than one coming to market? How will the safety of the vaccine be communicated? How will people be convinced to get a vaccine, especially in the politically charged atmosphere it’s being developed in? What is the most effective messaging?

The vaccine issue and how to communicate will be a difficult task, but one that’s extremely vital to our ability to beat COVID-19. It’s not clear exactly who will be taking the lead on a vaccine public information campaign, but the time is now for healthcare communicators to plan their own outreach efforts to patients and the general public.

There are other issues facing providers, such as the safety of elective surgeries and regular checkups and encouraging the use of telehealth for appointments.

On that last point, I can assure you that I have a clear understanding of what patients need and want to know, and how they want to hear about telehealth.

Being diagnosed with cancer, having surgery and going through the recovery process during a global pandemic have given me insights I will use for the rest of my career. And the rest of my life.


Jennifer Brantley is a Partner with MP&F Strategic Communications in Nashville, Tenn.