PR’s Top Pros Talk… The Human Side of Health Communications
Mike Rosich, General Manager, dna Communications
Mike Rosich, General Manager of dna Communications, a boutique health communications agency, reflects on how his team uses a patient focused approach in its campaigns. Mike also shares the benefits of partnering with advocacy groups to drive real impact on real people.
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HOST: DOUG SIMON
GUEST: MIKE ROSICH
DOUG: You like to talk about the human side of health communications, what do you mean by that?
MIKE: I think in health communications, it’s easy to forget that behind the patient there is a person. And so, as I think of health communications at all, I always like to think about the person behind that patient of what they do in their day-to-day life, who they are, what makes them tick as an individual, and then layer on top of that the condition that they may be encountering, because it helps you to contextualize what’s going to actually resonate and break through with them as a human rather than someone who has a specific condition.
DOUG Yeah, and does that tie into what you call the threshold of caring?
MIKE: Yeah, it’s interesting. I think everyone has a different threshold of what they care about, and that’s in health and outside of health overall, but if you’re able to break through that threshold and really get to a topic that is a mutual ground for you as a communicator and a person as a patient as well, you’re able to really resonate with them on a human level and break through into their lives. And I think that threshold is different for different people with different conditions. If you have a chronic condition, and it’s something that’s top of mind for you all the time, you’re going to be more interested in hearing about the topic that has to do with your condition, but also you have to be a bit more impactful as a communicator to have it resonate, not just get their attention, but actually have that content resonate versus if it’s a condition that is kind of coming in and out of your life in you’re not as familiar with or ingrained in it. You may actually, in an ironic way, have a lower threshold for what’s new to you. So, it’s actually sometimes easier to break through in those non chronic conditions for that reason.
DOUG: Yeah, and then also get ten of “the why behind” health stories. And is that both a piece if you’re communicating through the media as well as if you’re communicating direct to the people who might be affected?
MIKE: Yeah, I fundamentally think of communications in owned, in earned, in partnered, and how those three come together. And the term “the why behind” is something that I actually started using a few years ago when we saw this trend swing away from sound bites of content, from that micro content craze that was happening. And if it is used still, a lot of times that micro content is used almost as a hook to get into a deeper and more in-depth story that gives reasoning behind. And I think in the last year and a half, two years now with COVID, you’ve seen that “why behind” in mass media where it started with talking about COVID then it went into what was causing it and hypotheses around it. And now it seemed that everyone was learning and reading about clinical trials at the end of 2020 into 2021 as people who may not have even had that term in the vernacular a year and a half before. And I think that’s a great example of “the why behind” that it wasn’t enough just to know that it was happening. People now have and clamor for understanding of what is actually happening and why. And I don’t see that trend going away any time soon, and I think it’s good because it means people are taking ownership of their health journeys.
DOUG: Yeah, does that then present a risk for communicators now with so many tools at their disposal to be focusing on, let’s try something new, we have to do something novel. Can that be a mistake in this sort of hopefully post-COVID world that we’re entering or post intense COVID world?
MIKE: Post-COVID is an interesting term. I think it’s more the endemic phase, right, but I do think that a lot of communicators feel the pressure to always be doing something new and novel, and I love new and novel. I think that it has a time, and it has a place, and it has a role in communication, but sometimes that seeking of it blinds you to the fact that you can do something additive and important to the lives of the people you’re trying to communicate to. And it doesn’t have to be something that has maybe never been done before, but it could be something that builds on something that already exists, whether it’s a campaign, a message, a real life activation or resources, and being able to shift that mentality from everything we do always has to be the first of its kind to we can have real impact on real people is a great way to kind of reframe how we can help as health communicators.
DOUG: Yeah, and that’s really interesting, you talk about additive and helpful. Any idea, given your success maybe for health care communicators inside brands or other PR people, PR agencies, communicators, how do you go about starting point of, okay, we want to be additive and helpful. Is there sort of an approach that you take with your team to do that? Does the thinking have to change instead of what’s the new tool?
MIKE: Yeah, it starts with where we actually started our conversation of thinking of patients as people, and people have real issues and barriers in their lives that they need to overcome, whether it’s in health or not. But if they are thinking about health, and you’re able to dig into what’s stopping them from getting the resources they need, the information they need, the products or the improvement that they want to see, using that as a starting point and saying, how could we as communicators help to solve some of these true pain points? Because now you’re not just trying to raise awareness of something, you’re shifting from that awareness to an impact on a person’s life. And typically when you do that, we’re also as communicators worried about the media story and the angles out of it, but if you’re able to make a measurable change in a person’s life, the stories fall out of it. They come naturally out of it, and you’re telling the story of the journey that patient went on as a person, or how their life changed because of something new that was introduced into it that they didn’t know they needed before. And the story is already there, you don’t have to write the story, and it comes out of helping them overcome real issues in their lives as humans.
DOUG: Yeah, well, fortunately for us PR people that the brands typically still need someone to write it who can do it really well and make it understandable and relatable to people. Obviously, healthcare is a heavily regulated industry as far as communication. This might not make me loved, but at times in the past I’ve seen that sort of a crutch for not doing good PR. These days with increased transparency, everything’s going to be discovered about how you communicate. Do you think that’s making regulation maybe less of an issue as long as you don’t do the stupid stuff, not mark it off label, not make stuff up, obviously, you’re not going down that route.
MIKE: Yeah, I think regulation is good. I know that’s shocking from a health communicator, but I think it’s important in this space. Our communications in health should be held to a higher standard because people are making potentially life changing decisions off of this. And so, I fundamentally like to approach dealing with the regulation, medical, legal teams as our partners by actually partnering with them and not just coming with something that’s fully baked, bringing them along the journey, making sure that they have a say, to input, and then also explaining the why behind our decisions. That fundamentally is something that they also only know what they know and being able to educate and also have a two way conversation where we know that we may have to change things. They know that we may have to provide additional information to educate them on why we’re making a decision. But I think it’s important to have that regulation, though, because we need to make sure that the science is accurate, that we’re not misleading anyone, that we’re holding what we put out there to the highest of standards to ensure that people are informed, to make a decision as humans.
DOUG: Yeah, and a big part of healthcare communications can be partnering with advocacy groups. At your firm you both work on major diseases that are very common, also rare diseases. Any insights, maybe, on the advocacy partnerships both in the rare disease space and in the more common, well-known conditions?
MIKE: Yeah, advocacy is such a fundamental part of what we have to do in health because we need to make sure that we’re not just duplicating efforts that are already out there. And advocacy communities not only have the finger on the pulse of the community, but they also know what that community is looking for. And I was talking before about finding those real issues, a lot of times that’s done in partnership with advocacy and saying, what are you hearing from the community? A lot of them also have the condition or caretakers of someone with that condition, especially when the rarer the condition, the more likely the people leading those advocacy organizations are involved in it, not just professionally, but personally. And so, looking at them as someone that’s not just we want to come to you and say rubber stamp this for us, but approaching them and saying, how can we help you? We have three ideas, but these are starting points, for example, and start that dialogue and that two-way conversation in order to then progress into now what is something we can do together that can materially impact in a positive way the lives of your constituents?
DOUG: I was going to say that they’re also credible communicators, and we see a lot of the campaigns we work on where a communicator, someone from the advocacy group or team with someone, say, from the pharma involved and work together to get that information out to the public. Apologize for interrupting, you can jump back in.
MIKE: 100%, that’s oftentimes how we partner. Other times it is seeing if there’s something, a resource that we can build for them that not they may not have the resources for especially when you’re when you’re getting into these rare or ultra-rare diseases you have sometimes an advocacy community that is of the hundreds of thousands versus the millions. And then in the ultra-rare, you’re getting into the thousands, the tens of thousands. And so, they have very specific needs, and we can come in to help them realize, fulfill those needs in a way that can not just change their relationship with people, the patients, the caretakers in the community, but really help them tell a fuller story as well, because sometimes they don’t even have that communication arm to do it when you get to those smaller niche communities.
DOUG: Yeah, and Mike, this is such a thoughtful discussion, it makes me want to ask, do you ever get a sense of just pride and knowing that the work you do can actually help people out there, and is that something critical for people in the health comms space to keep in mind?
MIKE: I think it’s a nice added benefit that we get. I don’t want to say I selfishly do things in order to get that good feeling out of it, but it is what at the end of the day, when you hear stories from real people that they say how a program we did helped them in a meaningful way. We worked on a program through COVID that was about getting patients back into the doctor’s office that had had cancer, and some of the great stories we heard from hospital networks, from doctors, from patients, caregivers of how that message is what was a tipping point for them to get back in, you can’t help to feel like I helped someone today. Not only did I help my client, but I helped a real person, and that could be the difference in an outcome for them in now or in five, ten, fifteen years, because they went in because of a campaign we worked on.
DOUG: Yeah, and of course, clients are real people, too, so that could be our next campaign, but thanks so much for spending time with us and sharing your thoughts. It’s really great stuff.
MIKE: Yeah, I appreciate the conversation and the discussion today.