Shannon MoylanShannon Moylan

However you start your morning, the influx of information probably begins pretty early. It could be scrolling the latest Reel from an influencer you follow—or the accompanying ads—or perhaps an email newsletter you subscribed to so long ago you don’t remember. Maybe you’re old school and you watch the morning news with your coffee. Regardless of where you start, we’re all constantly bombarded almost from the moment we open our eyes. In a chaotic attention economy, you can’t just pay your way to the right people and hope to penetrate; you need to earn it.

But where to begin? If we’re stuck in this chaotic attention economy, how do we break through and get attention for ourselves or our clients? We all know reporters are spread thin, often being asked to be experts on a million topics at once. How do we get back to telling meaningful stories that matter enough for a reporter to write/produce it and an audience member to consume and retain the message?

We do this by starting with the person we’re trying to reach. Who is that person? In healthcare, it’s easy to lump healthcare providers, patients and caregivers into the same bucket. They all want the best health outcomes, right? But they all come at the problem from a different side. What matters to them? What influences them? What cultural vectors are driving their decision-making? By building a salient narrative that connects with those forces and identifying the right moments of opportunity to deliver them, we can authentically earn their attention and create impact beyond impressions.

This article is featured in O'Dwyer's October '23 Healthcare & Medical PR Magazine
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The head and the heart

One of the ways we like to draw these compelling stories out from clients and others we work with is the idea of the head and the heart. Most of us can be drawn into an issue with a valid argument full of compelling facts. Particularly when speaking with physicians and other HCPs, the science of an issue is paramount. These professionals stake their reputations on validated data and form most opinions and recommendations based on facts (we hope).

That said, put a photo of a cute puppy or a child in need in front of all but the coldest of us, and we melt. Hearing a patient’s plight is often just as compelling in helping someone understand the value of a treatment, new medical service or other organizational value proposition. In short, the head (science/fact) and the heart (human interest) must be balanced for the audience, and in the most captivating instances, each can add a degree of depth that can’t be ignored.

The audience is king/queen

You can’t pigeonhole a particular audience into one side of the head/heart equation. It’s a natural instinct to lead HCP communications with the relevant data; it’s often considered table stakes. While we certainly hope all of our HCPs are compassionate, caring individuals with meaningful bedside manner, data is and will continue to be most important in our communications. But, as the saying goes, HCPs are people too. They may have less time to consume gossip rags and Instagram than the rest of us, but they’re consumers and part of society. They’re patients and caregivers themselves. They can be swayed by patient success stories, as long as there is hard evidence backing up the win. And approaching and speaking to them in a human manner may help break through the clutter of journal articles and sales rep visits.

On the flip side, we can no longer attack potential and current patients and caregivers with images of smiling people skipping out of their doctors’ offices and hope they’ll blindly trust whatever treatment modality we are promoting. A recent Humana commercial brought this point home. In a send-up of “typical insurance” commercials, two crew members—who also happen to be seniors—are seen rolling their eyes at the aqua-aerobics scene they’re helping to film. While lamenting the tired tropes of “smiling seniors golfing, hiking ... antiquing,” these still-working seniors didn’t see themselves, or feel seen, in these ads. They didn’t want to be lumped into a stereotype, and they weren’t responding to the same generic messaging we’ve seen for years.

It’s on us as communicators to do the research on our audience, to stay up-to-date on the latest channels and outlets and to push clients—whether it’s agency clients or internal partners providing key information for communications efforts—to give us the critical data and stories needed to make a compelling story that will truly earn attention. Sometimes that means tough love for those partners, telling them we can’t achieve our mutual goals if we don’t have the data—and not just internal sales data—and the stories—and not just some anecdote from someone in the Midwest region—that touch an actual, pitchable person.

Embracing all channels

In a tale as old as the Internet itself, the general public is increasingly informed about potential conditions and their possible treatments. This thirst for information is so prevalent, it has a commonly accepted name: Dr. Google. And while searching for medical information online can lead down a dangerous path of misinformation, more often than not, patients still seek out their physicians even after an online search. Moreover, they actually tend to be more trusting of their physicians’ recommendations after having done at least a cursory bit of research themselves. Regardless of the result, as communicators, we can’t ignore this trend of increasing self-reliance among patients. It’s still important to speak to patients in lay terms they can understand without a medical degree, and they may still be swayed by smiling, healthy faces in ads, but they’re no longer the simpletons doing aqua-aerobics in the pool.

Brands shouldn’t talk at people, they must talk with them. In the communications ecosystem full of paid and earned opportunities, brands must speak the language of their audiences and enter that conversation in an authentic and purposeful manner. This includes building stories, content and messages that deliver on these influencer vectors for the targeted audience and show up where they are (not where the brand wants to be). By starting with earned-led storytelling, we’re forced into authenticity that will earn a placement in more traditional media and also be more compelling and resonate better when the story is translated to paid platforms.

What influences the audiences in health communications is more than the standard demographics but a complex matrix of cultural, generational and psychological inputs. All these pillars impact the overall experience with a brand. Beginning with mutually-beneficial narratives provides brands with the right platform to leverage data, technology and experiences that connect with each audience in a deeper way.


Shannon Moylan is Senior Vice President of Public Relations at imre.