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How Large Nonprofits Take on Health Care Public Relations

Published on October 15, 2023, 4:35 p.m.
by Caroline Raley.

In an era where health care remains an enduring necessity, nonprofit organizations in the field of health care public relations play an indispensable role in shaping the future of accessible, affordable and equitable health care for all. According to Communications Strategy Group, “health care public relations is simply the use of communications tools — such as press releases, social media accounts, and traditional media pieces — to spread a strategic message relevant to medicine or public health management.” It is an essential job in the health care industry.

Michele Money-Carson, American Cancer Society’s national vice president of media relations, said that health care PR for nonprofits is a broad category; it is different from traditional PR because the PR practitioner is promoting something “intangible” and a “mission” rather than a product.

Health care PR saves lives

American Cancer Society

There are thousands of diseases affecting humans every day. Without health care PR, it is possible that many people would never know the symptoms of a disease like cancer. It is also possible people may not know of clinical trials that could save a life.

Money-Carson shared an example of this necessary communication tool. Because a Tampa woman saw a story produced by the American Heart Association on the signs of a heart attack, she was able to recognize the signs and save her husband’s life. Money-Carson said it was true “that the stories that you’re putting out [as a health care nonprofit] are truly educating people, and they walk away with information that otherwise, they might not have had.”

PR is constantly changing, and that greatly applies to the health care industry. Medical discoveries, impactful patient stories and clinical trial findings are researched and published every day.

Elizabeth Whittington, senior director of executive communications at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, earned a PRSA Silver Anvil award for most effective campaign in 2020. The goal was to recruit patients for a clinical trial to help evaluate a treatment for a rare genetic disease in infants. The strategy included “digital marketing and public relations community engagement.” Whittington and her team worked closely with the researcher and identified priority publics, including patient families, clinicians and advocacy groups.

The campaign worked, and so did the clinical trial. Whittington expressed that the clinical study showed the treatment was a cure for the disease. She added, “Even though I am not a doctor, even though I am not a researcher, and I am not in the clinic, my contributions helped to literally find a cure and save children.”

The importance of health care communications cannot be understated. “Healthcare has a direct impact,” Mia McElroy, former senior marketing communication specialist for Baxter International Inc., said in a Plank Center infographic. “Whether you are communicating with doctors, patients, clients or vendors, what you do matters and can help people when they need it most.”

The emotional element of nonprofit work

One of the biggest challenges of working in health care PR is being able to handle the emotions that come with it. Whether professionals are working at American Cancer Society, American Heart Association or St. Jude Children’s hospital, all have to deal with disease and death at some point in their careers. There are over 200 cancers, heart disease is the number one cause of death among people in the United States, and according to American Cancer Society, approximately 1,040 children will die from cancer in the year of 2023.

Photo via American Cancer Society’s Instagram (@americancancersociety)

Darrya Lipscomb, national director of media relations at American Cancer Society, expressed that working with such sensitive stories actually becomes “reinforcement” that what she does matters. On the other hand, Joshua Till, director of communications and marketing at American Heart Association, said that he sometimes has to separate himself from work and give himself time to walk away from the computer for a few hours.

Money-Carson revealed how she could be collecting an inspiring story from a patient, and by the time the story is told, that person might have died. She said that being “emotionally invested” is essential. “Is your identity your job? If it is, then you need to find something that can give you an outlet. Find a volunteer position or a hobby,” she cautioned.

Nonprofit health care PR best practices

Working in the nonprofit space is obviously not for the weak-minded. No public relations job is easy.

One important best practice for working in this space is a shared mantra from Money-Carson and Lipscomb of the American Cancer Society. They both strongly recommended being a lifelong learner of the organization for which you are working.

“You need to constantly be a student of the market that you’re covering,” Money-Carson explained. “One of the things that I tell all young PR people is if you are not watching and reading, the outlets that you are on, that’s the number one mistake, and it’s going to come back to bite you quickly.”

Whittington agreed that PR practitioners need to stay on top of their organization’s industry. “Read a lot,” she advised.

Health care public relations plays a vital role in managing the reputation, communication and relationships of health care organizations and professionals. It involves strategic communication efforts to inform, engage and build trust among various stakeholders, including patients, the media and the public. It is not an easy job, but it is a rewarding one.

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