The right people and the right environment for innovative comms

Mike DIxon, CEO of the Healthcare Communications Association, discusses the biggest challenges facing the sector during and after COVID, from digital innovation to talent and sustainability.

With influence in areas as diverse as launch strategies, corporate reputation, and marketing, healthcare comms is something no company should be slacking on.

But Mike Dixon, CEO of the Healthcare Communications Association (HCA), says that comms teams within pharma still often find it difficult to get a seat at the top table to help convince leadership of the function’s true strategic value.

He says this is partly due to big in-house comms teams being a relatively new concept for the industry.

“Comms has grown up a lot in the last 10-20 years,” Dixon says. “But it’s probably still in its infancy compared to, say, marketing.

“We need to establish the value of the communications function beyond just writing press releases and show the strategic side of comms. For example, one of the biggest hurdles companies face in the UK is getting reimbursement approval for their products, and communication is a key part of those strategies.

For communication agencies to be able to engage with pharma at the strategic level there are additional challenges:

“The strategic expertise is certainly very strong in communications agencies but they need to be well networked at board level, otherwise there is the danger they are not given the opportunity to engage. More and more management consultancy companies are positioning themselves in the comms sector and are already interacting at that level, so may be better placed to engage in these communications strategic consulting opportunities.”

COVID accelerates change

With its membership covering all sectors of healthcare comms – from agencies to industry teams and charities – the HCA is often in a better position to identify and address common issues in the area than individual companies.

Dixon believes that great opportunities lie ahead for the industry, but there are still challenges that healthcare comms will need to address in order to remain relevant in a changing world.

Thankfully, healthcare comms has fared better than many other industries during the COVID-19 pandemic, putting the sector in a good position to harness and improve on the changes wrought by the crisis.

“About a third of our members say that they’ve had a negative impact from the pandemic,” says Dixon. “The rest are all positive or neutral – which is quite amazing when you consider how many other industries have been devastated.

“Most of the negative impacts have come from the initial uncertainty around congresses, although many ended up still being held but reformatted virtually. Teams have had to think about how they take the communication strategies they had planned for those meetings and achieve the same goals in a virtual setting.”

The forced switch to digital, he adds, has generated new business opportunities and has allowed teams to truly consider how they can use digital as a key part of their wider strategy.

Dixon says much of the innovation in the sector has come from strong individual players rather than being a paradigm shift for the entire industry – but this is changing.

“Thanks to COVID, organisations like the NHS will achieve aspects of their 10-year digital strategy in the space of two years – whereas before some people would have doubted they could even do it in 10. The same could be done for the comms sector, especially as clients are now more open to driving it.

“For example, we’re no longer asking whether we can use social media because of regulations – we’re now asking how we can use it, and how we can be better at it. We’re already seeing some amazing examples of how tools like that can be used.”

The talent problem

But there are some difficulties the comms sector was facing before COVID that will continue to be pervasive even once the pandemic is over.

Dixon says that for a long time the most widespread challenge facing the industry has been finding, keeping and managing talent.

“The problem is that we are a specialist sector, and we need people who have specific skills and understanding. It’s not easy to transfer people from outside healthcare, so every company is poaching from the same, limited pool of employees. This is especially acute at the mid and senior levels, where you need people with years of experience.”

Dixon adds that agencies are increasingly hiring talent managers in order to recruit and retain the best people.

With the initial immediate upheaval of the pandemic now passed, the HCA will continue its initiatives encouraging people from other sectors with transferable skills to join healthcare comms. For example, the Association has set up a careers website that can help people understand what healthcare comms roles involve and hear from people working in the industry.

“People with related experience and a science background could be quickly transferred across to a healthcare comms role and be quickly trained up as a medical writer or even an account handler,” says Dixon. “That’s a great way to fill mid-level spots.

“I think it’s fair to say that historically most people have fallen into healthcare comms – for example through hearing about it from a friend – rather than specifically seeking it out.

“Going forward, what the healthcare community needs to do, and what the HCA has been trying to help them with, is get people to think about healthcare comms from the beginning of their career planning, and make it an attractive option for them. That will mean going out and talking to as many people as possible, showing that these roles and careers exist. That will be an ongoing task for years to come.”

Reputation, reputation, reputation

Part of the issue in finding talent is the pharma industry’s traditionally poor reputation among the general public.

Recent Edelman Trust Barometer data shows that people’s opinion of the pharma sector has skyrocketed during COVID-19, although DIxon says the downside to that is that the industry needs to find ways and work hard to maintain that reputation.

“If the vaccine doesn’t come through quickly enough, if the public doesn’t understand the huge costs of developing drugs and see COVID treatments as being overpriced, pharma can easily lose that trust again.

“It’s really important that we try and maintain that trust and highlight the important work the industry is doing. The more we can show that this is a sector that is adding value and doing good, the more people will want to join.”

There are also wider reputational concerns impacting other industries that pharma will need to reckon with – especially as Millennials and people from Generation Z start to enter the workforce.

For example, Dixon says that these generations are keen to work for companies that show social consciousness – which only adds to the litany of reasons sustainability should be a priority for healthcare.

“It’s important to shareholders, it’s important to employees, and it’s important to the future of everyone’s health and wellbeing. Companies in other sectors, like Unilever, have done amazing things to start on the road to sustainability, and the communications professionals have been integral to that strategy. If we help champion the sustainability drive within pharma , it could help cement our position at the top table.”

Another increasingly pertinent issue, particularly to Gen Z and Millennial workers, is diversity and inclusion.

“They want to see the companies they work for and buy products from showing more responsibility in that area,” Dixon explains.

“We still have a long way to go in the industry to fully achieve that. There are some positives – for example, our data shows that in the agency sector there are predominantly more women in senior leader positions than men – but you have to be very careful with statistics that might look good. Diversity and inclusion is about more than just numbers.

“We need to make sure that everybody has the same opportunity and is being treated the same way. If we’re mostly taking on graduates, for example, we’re already limiting ourselves to people who can afford to pay for three years of university, making the pool less diverse.

“By no means do I think we’re the worst industry for diversity and inclusion, but we’ve got a long way to go. I hope that as a sector, because of who we are, we’re able to address those issues and learn and continually improve ourselves.”

Beyond these concerns, Dixon notes that widening the talent pool will involve ensuring that new employees have the opportunities they need to build a long term career in comms.

“Generation Z is just coming into the sector, and they are mostly at junior levels. We’re hearing from our members that promotion and career progression are key concerns for them.

“Companies are working hard on making sure they do more regular appraisals and reviews, so that workers understand clearly what they need to achieve to advance themselves.”

Fostering innovations

The ultimate benefit of bringing in people with more diverse experience and transferable skills is to further drive the innovation that is essential in the modern healthcare world.

“Generally in pharma we need to do a lot better at fostering innovation,” says Dixon.

“Some might say it’s harder to do that in healthcare, where we have more regulations and restrictions, but other regulated sectors deliver some very innovative comms, so that is more of an excuse rather than a reason.

“There’s already some cracking work out there – many of the projects you see winning at healthcare comms awards are just as good as what you’d see in the consumer sector.”

He concludes: “It’s a question of having the right people who can have those innovative thoughts, the right processes, and the right environment to allow that innovation to happen. There’s no point bringing innovative people into a sector then preventing them from capitalising on those skills because you have an environment that does not support innovation.”

About the interviewee

Mike Dixon

Mike Dixon started his career as a medical sales rep before moving into a professional relations role at Abbott in the UK. Moving to the agency sector he held senior positions at Burson-Marsteller and Ruder Finn before joining as a board director of VB Communications and managing director of their medical communications division, Jago Pearce. When bought by Huntsworth Health, Mike became the group’s operations director before leaving in 2007 to set up echo, his own multichannel med comms agency. echo joined the Mission Group in 2015 with Mike moving to executive director of their Global Health network, Vivactis Global Health. Now, as well as his consultancy work, Mike also remains an owner and a working director at Specialist Publishers. In 2017 Mike became the CEO of the Healthcare Communications Association.

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