Healthcare Public Affairs: A Unique Industry That Needs a Unique Narrative

Over the years, I’ve worked with many health care clients and the industry has evolved and changed in too many ways to count. But in that time, amid the changes, innovations, and endless policy debates, there has been one constant—policy debates are increasingly influenced by consumer anecdotes.

In every facet—pharmaceuticals, insurance, care—costs keep rising, patients are increasingly confused, and their stories have a dramatic impact on how policy is developed. When industry tries to tell its story to policymakers, it is often against the backdrop of an uncaring industry whose sole motive is profit.

Breaking through a message wall that is built on increasing costs and emotional consumer accounts requires a sophisticated narrative that puts the industry on the side of patients and caregivers—not against them. So what should be your voice and who is best to deliver your message? How do you address public affairs in such a complex industry?

When you hear from the public, “Everything’s too expensive and no one knows why,” the lack of nuance is not because they don’t want to understand. It’s because of too much clutter and not enough sharing of clear, concise information about a very important issue.

If you’re a public affairs strategist in the health care sector, it’s your job to provide nuance. In an industry where new studies come out every week—what’s good for you; what’s bad for you; new technologies; good policies; bad policies; rising costs; future costs—it’s easy to see why consumers are overwhelmed and confused.

Whether in you’re in pharmaceuticals, insurance, or technology, policymakers want to hear a clear message not only from the industry perspective but also through the lens of patients and caregivers. Patients and policymakers alike are tired of one part of the industry blaming another part of the industry for rising costs. If your industry really wants to influence the political debate and lawmakers, your nuance needs to come from patients’ voices.

What does that look like? If you’re pharmaceuticals, maybe it’s a messaging campaign that illustrates what it takes to bring a medicine to the market. Do your customers know that it can take five years and $1 billion of research and development to move a drug through the FDA approval process and into the market? If not, creatively illustrate that and, most importantly, the ultimate benefit of that journey: live-saving medicines.

If you’re in technology, maybe it’s demonstrating why medical procedures cost what they do. Show the years of labor and innovation that go into developing new devices and technologies. But not just for the sake of spinning a good tale—use it to tell real stories of how this labor and innovation are helping patients’ live longer and better.

If you’re in insurance, maybe it’s telling the story of how administrative costs are higher for this industry than in any other, due to outdated records systems and endless bureaucracy. Then match that with the story of where you are working and innovating to make things easier, faster, and more efficient. And again, show how that ease and efficiency positively affects patients, their families, and caregivers.

In public affairs, too often every industry is looked at the same way. Of course in health care, too, it’s useful to take a 360-degree approach when developing a communications campaign that includes issues management, positioning, messaging, outreach, thought leadership, and crisis response.

The truth is, however, health care is unlike any other industry. Policymakers often develop policy influenced by emotional stories shared by their constituents. As long as this constant holds true, successful healthcare public affairs strategies will be ones that provide enough clarity and nuance so that when you take your message to lawmakers you’re not standing alone: you have patients and caregivers standing right along with you.

Gloria Story Dittus is the Chairman of the strategic public affairs firm Story Partners headquartered in Washington, DC. Follow her on Twitter at @GloriaDittus


Morning Consult