3 Ways Healthcare Companies Can Lead with Empathy

Oct 25, 2017

There is a persistent stereotype of public relations professionals as “spin doctors.” We’re hired guns aiming to put lipstick on a pig, pull the wool over someone’s eyes, or <insert any other cliched maxim here>. The last thing we would do is tell clients to lead with empathy, telling honest stories from the heart.

In truth, PR folks want to help companies clarify, amplify and distribute their message and their mission. Often, innovators are too close their own products to effectively tell their own stories. To speak for them, PR people must first understand what drives the company from its origin story to the everyday passions of the company’s employees.

Listening is the most important skill in PR. Empathy is the most important mindset. And nowhere is this as vital as within the healthcare industry.

Hundreds of thousands of people work across the American healthcare system with a single, shared goal: to help people. It is easy to lose sight of this. Insurers, hospitals, life sciences companies, health tech startups and other healthcare vendors struggle to respond to a buffet of financial and regulatory challenges that are amplified by the current transformation to value-based care.

One Boston hospital CEO described it best when she said that the biggest struggle for most healthcare organizations is “having one foot in the boat and one foot on the dock.” Many providers have made significant strides towards goals such as shifting to pay-for-performance contracts, launching population health programs, or modernizing their payment systems to reflect consumer-driven health plans. But extending clinical and patient experience best practices to every last patient remains an elusive goal for most.

It is fair to say that our healthcare company clients all have one thing in common they are all working to help healthcare providers (or insurers or employers) to get “both feet into the boat” when it comes to value-based care. Understanding the importance of this mission, and its inherent challenges, is our first job as healthcare PR professionals.

Our second job is to help clients to lead with empathy, by guiding them back, again and again, to their core value helping customers tackle the goals of the Triple Aim. Here are three ways healthcare companies can cut to the core of what matters, tell their company story effectively, and gain customer loyalty:

Everyone is a patient

Some of the most effective and memorable client communications I have seen draw on the healthcare experiences of CEOs, other C-suite executives, researchers, other employees, or their families. We all have stories of instances when the healthcare system has not delivered on its promise, and these experiences often drive the development of new solutions among healthcare companies. Meeting “unmet medical needs” begins with sharing what these needs are and why they are important with a variety of audiences. This is often best done through personal stories.

See the caregiver

The decisions made by healthcare providers on a daily basis have life-changing consequences. Many of our clients aim to make those decisions easier, by offering evidence-based content support, by getting rid of background noise that can cloud judgment, or by simply shaving time off each clinician’s administrative burden. If healthcare companies can drill down further to describe how products may positively impact specific patient interactions, particular care transitions or certain data reporting processes, this is likely to spur more “aha” moments among reporters, potential customers and investors.

We’re all in this together

It’s easier to make the empathy connection when a healthcare vendor’s primary audience is patients or clinicians. But what about companies who are targeting CIOs, physician practice managers, front office staff, payers and employers? How, for instance, do revenue cycle management tools make patients lives better?

Connect the dots here by developing case studies, blogs and other content that drives home the value of these tools to the healthcare ecosystem, and to particular individuals. Circling back to the core mission driving the company is especially important when the success stories may not *typically* be front page news. This is key to driving continued interest among the press and potential customers, but also to fanning the passions of your workforce. Everyone within any healthcare enterprise wants to feel that they are doing good in the world. Investing in uncovering success stories will have long-term benefits both internally and externally.

The first step

To build a PR program that leads with empathy, you need to uncover the stories that help your target audience connect not only with your products, but with your company culture and your commitment to making a difference. Look for that human element and you will find your programs are far more effective.

Julie Donnelly

Julie Donnelly is an award-winning former journalist with 15 years' experience reporting for radio, TV, print and online outlets. Her work has aired on NPR, PBS, BBC, South African Broadcasting Corp., Channel New Asia and Australian Independent Radio. From 2008 to 2014, she covered the pharmaceutical, biotechnology, medical device, HIT, hospital and healthcare payer industries for the Boston Business Journal. Donnelly provides custom content to healthcare and HIT clients including blogs, contributed articles, white papers, website copy, news releases and executive speeches. A one-time Associated Press Rookie of the Year, Julie has won an Edward R. Murrow Award for radio writing and has been honored by the Society of Professional Journalists and the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors. Since leaving journalism, Julie has become a sought-after content contributor to both industry publications and to healthcare/ HIT companies. Julie brings a 360-degree perspective to healthcare and HIT clients, with a keen understanding of the economic and regulatory forces shaping the healthcare landscape today. Donnelly holds a B.A. in Political Science from Macalester College and an M.A. in International Journalism from City University in London, U.K.