PRCA Health: Healthcare Communications in the Personalised Age

At a time where COVID means the health profession is being subject to more scrutiny than ever before, the PRCA’s well-timed virtual conference covered various topics prevalent to healthcare communications. This included looking at the new decade of healthcare storytelling, the impact on communications in the age of ‘personality campaigns’, how digital strategies can create more human conversations and whether creativity in health is needed now more than ever.

There has been a lot of work done over the years which shows we have been hardwired to receive information through storytelling and that emotive connection helps the laying down of memories and helps things ‘stick’. Information framed in an emotive narrative can act as a neurological shortcut to the assimilation of information – and this isn’t something that is likely to change over the next decade. Stories are still going to need the same things: an emotional hook; the empathetic punch; a bit of drama; and simplicity (more on this later).

 However, there are some key trends which will affect all areas of healthcare communications:

  • Trust
  • Personalised campaigns
  • Data
  • Creativity

1) Trust

At a time when a global pandemic is coming hot on the heels of Brexit, Trump and being ‘in a post truth age’, there hasn’t been a time where people have been more acutely aware of their current situation and what is going on around them.

  • Therefore, what is being said, how it’s being said and by whom will be key to building trust.

It has been 4 years since Gove said that we had “had enough of experts” and with the rise of countless digital platforms, now we have so many channels that expertise has become diluted and we have become worse at identifying what constitutes as expertise.

However, a recent Open Knowledge Foundation poll has shown since the beginning of lockdown two thirds of people are more likely to listen to experts, and the Edeleman Trust Barometer has seen an increase in trust in the pharmaceutical companies. This shows that in the backdrop we do believe in science and we are in the market for more trusted information and we are seeing a move towards more mediated content as a result.

Whilst there still seems to be the rising concern about ‘echo chambers’ we need to remember that…

  • Confirmation bias isn’t a new trend

We have always looked for ‘evidence’ that will support out views, the problem is now we all have the platforms to spread and receive them.

Yet research was conducted as a ‘social listening’ exercise which found that on social media there is normally a balance: e.g. for every anti-vaccination comment on an article there was an ‘anti-anti-vaccinator’ creating the balance. Yet as more people fear being lambasted on social media for expressing views, so conversations are moving to untraceable and hidden platforms, e.g. whatsapp, where the real echo chambers can exist and expand unchecked.

However, evidence suggests most people who don’t vaccinate their children aren’t anti-vaccine (although it is true there are a small minority) but instead have ‘vaccine-hesitancy’. What the opponents have done is created enough fear, which has created hesitancy so that on the balance of the imagined ‘risks’ – they decide to avoid it altogether. Therefore what we will have to do to combat ‘echo chambers’ as communicators is combat myths with facts.

  • Fact checking is going to be a tipping point

However unfortunately ‘myth-busting’ in health communications does not work – we cannot fight fake facts with real facts. We have an uphill battle and are starting on the back foot – as people who are perpetuating ‘fake news’ don’t have to be married to facts like we do. Therefore, what we have to do is reframe the narrative and remind people what we are protecting them for.

An example of a successful campaign in reframing the narrative was done in Ireland around the HPV vaccine. There was a global trend where the anti-vaccine movement resulted in a drop in intake of HPV vaccinations from 70% to 1% in Japan, 79% to 17% drop in Denmark and 87% to 51% in Ireland. Wanting to get ahead of this, a successful campaign was run in Ireland by giving everyone a new reference point: here are the facts and figures… and this could be your daughter. As well as science professionals, healthcare professionals, parent and patient groups, educational groups along with the Health Services Executive… they also had an articulate patient advocate: Laura Brennan – the reality of an unvaccinated girl. Laura gave her voice to this campaign until her last day and through this campaign, Ireland saw a rise back to 90% update of the vaccine. The WHO adopted it is a successful campaign to combat anti-vaccine narratives.

When it comes to the future of engaging health communications, we don’t need to tell people… we need to show people.

2) Personalised campaigns

How we show people will change over the next decade. With the rise of AI and all our communications being driven by technological advances, finding the human emotion in what feels like an overwhelming advancement of technological change will be the grounding for all communications.

Unlike other sectors, healthcare is already ahead of the curve as healthcare communicators are used to putting patients and individuals at the heart of their story. By creating emotional resonance and making campaigns personal, we can cut through busy social media.

  • Immediacy of tailored content

In a time where google is the answer, people are going to be going online for an easy to use guide and get their answers quickly. As another way of cutting through echo chambers, by making readily available and more direct information that is relevant to each individual’s experience, this will allow people to have a quicker and more authentic conversations with brands and organisations (more on this below).

How we create more targeting and personalised campaigns will also be influenced by the data we have.

3) Data

Data has been the watch word for the past 10 years and will continue to be so. As more and more campaigns become personalised, by using data to understand more effectively where your audiences are, you will be able to identify more accurately what defines their personas and decision-making so you can ensure your messaging is reaching the right group of people at the right time.

Not only can it be used to get messaging out there, we often forget to:

  • Use it as an opportunity to listen

An example of a successful campaign was given when the NHS gave over their twitter handle to staff and patients to share their stories and experiences. Whilst there was initial hesitancy and fear, the decision was made as ‘if we trust them with our lives, why can’t we trust them with our social media?’

Whilst we will always be bound and driven by data, it will be up to healthcare professionals to interpret that data to find emotive, benefit driven content which will require creativity.

4) Creativity

Creativity will be key to keeping things fresh. Fortunately, the core of healthcare is purposeful and human-centric which gives boundless opportunities for giving different voices to imaginative campaigns. We are constantly coming up with medical innovations that change people lives which gives healthcare communicators as many different opportunities to bring that level of creativity to the delivery of those messages.

  • Short-term vs long-term campaigns

There has been a lot of research, including a study by Peter Fields, looking at moving from ‘short-term’ campaigns to longer-term campaigns with a view that there is a growing need for creative commitment. This is trend that has seen a 36% increase from 2019 from 2017 where successful PR bids have been won by involving a long-term adoption strategy, with a focus on bring PR in earlier to the strategy process.

With the long term strategy there is a line to be found between reflectiveness vs creativity, as the successful campaigns aren’t just a stunt that cause a spike in sales or social media engagement… but have long term behavioural change as the definition of success and the ones that people reference year after year which means the company/brand become the trusted voice and are able to act in a way that is more authentic in the future.


Finally, the huge amount of data available then makes the issue of simplicity key going forward.

As discussed, healthcare is top of the news agenda and so one of the biggest issues facing health communications is not lack of engagement with the issue – but an issue engaging with the content.

MSD conducted a study with the NHS that showed that 41% of people aren’t able to understand the written information and 61% aren’t able to understand the level of numerical information produced in the majority of healthcare resources.

In an age where it’s minute-to-minute news and during a global pandemic – it is the role of healthcare communications professionals to ensure that the information is simple and effectively received in order to save lives.

Speakers included:

  • Ian Ray MPRCA, Associate Creative Director, Pegasus
  • Matt Hare-Scott CMPRCA, Associate Director, Porter Novelli
  • Matt Worrall, Associate Director, Policy & Communication, MSD
  • Dr David Robert Grimes, cancer researcher, science writer and advocate and fake news expert
  • Roudie Shafie MPRCA, Director, OVID Health
  • Jon Buckley MPRCA, Director of Digital, Strategy & Insights, Pegasus
  • Maja Pawinska Sims, Associate Editor (EMEA), PRovoke Media
  • Rachel Royall MPRCA, Director of Healthcare, Wellbeing and Pharma, Markettiers
  • Natalie Orringe, Chief Marketing Officer, Access Intelligence
  • Ishtar Schneider CMPRCA, Associate Director, Edelman
  • Esin Cittone MPRCA, Creative Director (Health), Edelman Deportivo
  • Annie Smith, Senior Content Manager, Cannes Lions
  • Rebecca Rhodes, Co-Founder, SuperHuman and previous jury member, Cannes Lions Health

Ellwood Atfield is the Communications and Advocacy Headhunter with a dedicated Health and Social Care team. Contact us to speak about all aspects of Corporate Communications, Internal Communications, Public Affairs, Policy, Digital & Social Media, Consumer PR, Financial PR, Sustainability & CSR.

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