Brianne MillerBrianne Miller

In the immortal words of ancient Greek philosopher Hericlitus, “the only thing that is constant is change.” That was true in 500 B.C. and it’s a vital guiding principal today.

The worldwide healthcare industry has been irrevocably changed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Healthcare communications changed along with it; but no one could have predicted at the start of COVID that we’d be struggling with this continuing crisis today. The first cases of COVID were reported in the U.S. in January of 2020. Here we are almost two years later. What have we learned? How do we continue to deal with ongoing change in healthcare communications?

We’ve learned that constant and continuing change is a given. Predictions of “when COVID ends” have morphed into “how the pandemic will evolve.” There’s no in-between, just a journey. That’s a good lesson for any communications team, especially those that will need to shift from a milestones/launch mentality to on-going integrated programming. It’s vital to get comfortable in a new mindset that measures metrics all along vs. “at the end of the program.” COVID has taught us that programs morph and sometimes there’s no end in sight.

This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Oct. '21 Healthcare & Medical PR Magazine
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Another important lesson is that you must meet your audience where they are. How we work changed in the blink of an eye and there’s no going back. While you may previously have expected emails and phone calls to slow down by 5:30 p.m., the 24/7 clock is the new reality. The appetite for information doesn’t follow an antiquated nine-to-five work week. If a journalist can count on you to get them vital information for a digital piece that posts at 9:00 p.m., you’re a reliable source.

And that leads to … setting boundaries. Just like everyone else, I fell into a constant-work cycle when my office no longer provided a framework to the day. Being a good example for your team means setting boundaries and defining crisis. If a client or colleague calls at 7:30 p.m. with a task that provides value and has to be completed by 8:00 a.m., fine. If they call/text/email with something that could have waited until the morning, protect your valuable home/family time.

Here are my top 10 tips for moving into the next phase of healthcare communications in 2021:

Resource up. Whether you’re an agency serving healthcare clients, an in-house team or a vendor to the industry, you’re understaffed. If the past two years taught us nothing else, we know that predicting the volume of need for healthcare communications is futile. Resources need to be fluid and flexible. The rise of remote work and robust freelancer communities creates a pool of on-demand help. Find your matches. Marshall your troops. Dip into the pool when needed.

Don’t overcommunicate. COVID information fatigue is high. Guidelines change week to week and confusion is the only constant. Communicate when necessary, with complete and compact information. Create a resource for up-to-date information that’s user-friendly and dated. Today’s Google search of COVID fact sheets for three U.S. markets yielded out of date information each and every time. Don’t be that confusing brand or service. Look at your content as a conversation, not as a one-way bullhorn.

Proactively highlight non-pandemic news. All forms of healthcare continue during this worldwide crisis. Maintain outreach to specific condition-related communities, celebrate new hires, launch the product. Create the digital footprint that will serve the organization during and post-COVID. While it’s not business as usual, don’t ignore the business at hand.

Embrace paid + placed. A fractured media landscape necessitates a paid-plus-placed model, especially in healthcare trades. Support the businesses that report your news. You become a partner in everyone’s success.

Test and learn. This is a pivotal time for healthcare and an opportunity to test new methods of communication with little downside. What works and what doesn’t varies by brand/client/organization. Now is the time to experiment. Beta test an app. Get more active on a social network. Create video content with a point of view. Media train and test new spokespersons. Embrace storytelling. Put time and effort behind the methods that perform. Forget the others. Exit COVID with new tools in your belt.

Measure. ROI/KPI/LMNOP … whatever acronym you use, use that measurement method often. You can’t assess the effectiveness of any effort without understanding if it worked. Start at the beginning with goals, find a metric to measure against them and report. Even if results were dismal, you learned something.

Support your teams. The workforce has had to embrace—and sometimes adhere to—new work styles and methods. What used to be a quick five-minute conversation in the break room is a full screen of back and forth on Slack. Annoying? Maybe. Everyone struggles from time to time. Compassion is a must. Celebrate as often as you can.

Find the story. COVID unearthed stories of amazing courage and resilience, especially among frontline workers. Any brand/organization with people has stories. Find them and share appropriately with your audiences. There’s never been a better time to present an organization as a collective of smart and thoughtful people. The rise of “good news journalism” presents another opportunity for media outreach.

Redefine healthCARE. What does your client do for people that makes their lives better? Are you struggling to answer that question? That’s your first sign of trouble. Create something that benefits all, whether it’s as simple as a branded calming music playlist for chemo patients or a partnership with a food co-op to deliver to the underserved. If a corporate social responsibility program doesn’t exist, start one now.

Constantly generate ideas. I have a folder on my computer called “harebrained schemes.” If I think of some crazy pitch or stunt or partnership, I put it in there. When I’m struggling to come up with creative concepts, I open those files and invariably come up with something new. It’s the pandemic version of “no such thing as a bad idea in a brainstorm meeting.” Encourage others to think creatively.

Find the opportunities in chaos. Celebrate your successes and learn from methods that underperform. Thank your teams; they’re working harder than ever. And in the words of World Health Organization Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, “Be safe, be smart, be kind.”


Brianne Miller is Senior Counselor at Landis Communications, Inc. (LCI).