Cecily N. DumasCecily N. Dumas

Humans are cynical. But in our defense, we need to be.

Every day, we’re bombarded with information: whether we’re online or offline, when we’re at work or off the clock, while we’re using our discerning minds or enjoying mindless entertainment.

Maybe our doctor’s office sends an email reminding us to schedule a flu shot, a parent pointedly reminds us that we should be getting at least seven hours of sleep a night or a wellness influencer raves about a smoothie delivery service, with a direct link to purchase the product.

We need to quickly decide what we believe is true, relevant to us and worth acting on. We have only so much time and energy, and we can’t give our attention to all the messaging and calls to action that demand it. So, how do we decide?

When faced with a barrage of messaging, the information source becomes a cue we use to determine whether to believe and give weight to what we are being told. This is just one reason that engaging trusted voices and organizations is critical to the success of health communications programs.

As health communicators, we have to figure out what will reinforce the credibility of our programs and motivate audiences to adopt our calls to action.

Robust, meaningful partnerships are an essential strategy to this end.

This article is featured in O'Dwyer's October '23 Healthcare & Medical PR Magazine
(view PDF version)

And if done effectively, partnerships can help us achieve so much more. They can enhance our programs, expand reach and engagement among audiences, maximize resources and improve program sustainability.

Below are four approaches to help ensure that everyone—including you and your partners—get the most out of your partnerships.

Understand your audiences and engage partners that are most credible to them

While we all can agree that not everything we see or hear is true, that’s where the unanimity stops. Our unique experiences—our culture, community, social circles and countless other factors—impact what we view as credible, relatable sources of information.

Use formative research to identify whom your audiences trust and look to for information. Then place those trusted sources and the organizations that serve them among your priority partners. As you plan your partnership efforts, take care to also consider the appropriateness of the messenger based on the health issue you are trying to affect. Would communication about your health topic feel aligned coming from the organization or person—or would it seem incongruous with their own mission?

By engaging trusted partners to disseminate your messages and align their name with your program, you can increase the likelihood that your audiences will pay attention to and act on your messages.

Engage partners early and often

Bring partners to the table as early as possible in your program planning. The greater opportunity partners have to take part in your planning and establish a presence within your program, the more invested they’re likely to feel in the program’s success. Don’t be afraid to even bring in priority partners from the “ground floor” by allowing them the chance to provide input as you establish your program’s goal and brand.

Not only does this go a long way to cultivating a mutually beneficial relationship, as the partner feels—and rightly so—that their own interests are being considered—it also can be a huge boon to your planning, because it helps you uncover areas for collaboration, address gaps and reduce redundancies with what your partners are already doing.

Then, once you have partners at the table, keep them there with regular contact. Give them opportunities to share with you and other program partners their team’s impact and present their best practices. This also provides other partners an opportunity to see new approaches that they may like to apply to their own efforts.

Partners who see themselves and their goals reflected in your program are more likely to give their own time to further your impact.

Apply the Golden Rule to your partnerships

Think about all you hope to achieve through partnerships—maybe it’s expanded reach and deeper engagement among audiences, improved credibility, maximized resources or program sustainability. What can you offer in return? The strongest and most enduring partnerships are mutually beneficial.

Don’t enter any partner conversations with only asks. Be prepared to share what your partners will gain by collaborating with you.

Perhaps it’s promoting their activities through your own communications channels. Or it could be sharing your expertise, such as having your subject matter experts join them in a presentation.

Take care to consider what the organization may find valuable and tailor your offerings accordingly.

Tailor your outreach and asks to the individual partner

Not all partners are created equal. And thank goodness! Do your homework and customize your collaboration ideas based on the capacity and goals of the partner.

For example, don’t assume that a constant ask among your partners will be for them to disseminate your resources via their social media channels. Some organizations may have a strong social media presence among your audiences, while others may be able to connect you with subject matter experts or even audience members to feature in your program materials and outreach.

If you activate your partners in the ways that best fit their own capabilities and interests, they’ll see that you recognize the unique value they bring to the program and feel galvanized to continue supporting you.

That’s just the beginning

These four approaches are just the beginning when it comes to building robust, lasting and mutually beneficial partnerships. The list is far from comprehensive, and though it takes time and care, partnership development brings great value to our health communications efforts. We’re stronger together, and together with partners, we can amplify our impact and achieve wonderful things.


Cecily N. Dumas, MA, is a Vice President in the Health Practice at Hager Sharp in Washington, D.C.