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Public relations (PR) is far from a narrowly defined concept. This is especially the case in the medical device industry, in which the "public" includes a vast array of stakeholders with which companies must communicate. Whether and how a manufacturer decides to delineate its PR functions from other corporate functions varies by company.
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"At Siemens, the PR department includes media relations and corporate affairs, which encompasses a speakers' bureau, corporate sponsorship activities, and communications activities related to mergers and acquisitions, government relations, and crisis situations," says LuJean R. Smith, senior director for public relations at Siemens Medical Solutions (Malvern, PA). "Some PR departments at other companies also include internal communications and event planning."
Although the structure and function of medical device manufacturers' PR departments may vary, all must be prepared to address challenges specific to communications within the medtech industry. Furthermore, executives must be properly equipped to serve as spokespeople for their firms and to handle their companies' communications in times of crisis.
As with many corporate functions, medical device firms face special challenges when it comes to public relations. According to Ellie Becker, a principal at Team PR (Westport, CT), one of the primary PR challenges faced by medical device companies is in relation to intellectual property (IP). "Many processes are proprietary and, although the point of PR is to report about the product and the reasons that it represents a breakthrough, it's important to do so while protecting IP," she says. "Handling this with media requires forethought and tact.
"Secondly, it's critical to explain the science in clear, understandable language," she adds. "Often media and other key groups will avoid a story if it seems too complicated. The information needs to be boiled down, not only to make the story appealing, but to help ensure that the facts remain accurate in the media retelling."
The matter of simplicity is further complicated when considering the diverse audiences to which medical device manufacturers communicate, including everyone from patients and caregivers to investors and payers. "Each of those constituents has differing needs," says Roger Fischer, president and CEO of FischerHealth (Los Angeles). "Medical device companies start with a broad base of stakeholders that they need to communicate with, and yet they need to make the message relatively simple. Therefore, they need a simple, consistent story that can generally apply across all those constituents. But then when a company has the opportunity to sit down with each individual entity, it needs to be able to drill down and have individual stories for each constituent."
By taking into account the individual perspectives of their audiences, medical device companies can better tailor their messages for various media outlets and stakeholder groups. "Unless the target is a technical journal, medical technology companies are better off focusing their storytelling on the benefits of their device rather than the specific technological features," says Chris Thompson, vice president of Edward Howard & Co. (Cleveland). "Many technology companies, particularly relatively young ones, become so fascinated with the sophistication of their product that they fail to communicate the benefits of using it.
However, Thompson adds a word of caution about communicating the benefits of a product. "Because medical technology companies operate in a highly regulated environment, they must take particular care to avoid exaggerating the benefits and features of their products," he says.
In an ideal market, medtech manufacturers would be able to focus the entirety of their PR efforts on communicating compelling and unique company and product stories to agreeable and receptive audiences. But in reality, a significant portion of a company's PR resources can easily be consumed by efforts to manage and defuse crisis situations.
Types of Crises. Often the most visible crises in the medical device industry arise in the form of product recalls. "The overarching principle is to be first to announce a recall so that you can present the company's side of the story and not allow FDA or the media to fill in the blanks," says Chris Storer, account supervisor for Creative Partners (Stamford, CT).
However, in moving to be the first to announce a recall, manufacturers must also take care to have a coherent, consistent message prepared. "Often, recalls occur based on issues that may not be very serious, or based on the potential for harm to patients before any harm could befall anyone," says Steven DiMattia, managing director for EVC Group (San Francisco). "Still, the potential for harm to the company's reputation is very real, especially among investors, customers, and business partners. Before the company publicly discloses its recall, it is imperative that everyone within the company understands the appropriate level of urgency required and is prepared with the same messages regarding the extent of the recall, its causes, and any matters that could affect patient care or the health of patients who have been in contact with the device."
However, product recalls are not the only occurrences that can send a company's PR department into crisis management mode. "A recall is one possibility medtech companies should prepare for, but so are an on-site disaster, the unexpected death of a critical senior executive, a change in management, new legislation that negatively affects business, and other events," says Catherine M. Wolfe, director of marketing services for Toshiba America Medical Systems Inc. (Tustin, CA). "In California, we need crisis plans for earthquakes, for instance. In our industry, we've also needed to prepare timely communications regarding the changes resulting from the Deficit Reduction Act, and changes to reimbursement."
Principles of Crisis Response. No matter the nature of the crisis, some general principles apply to handling such situations from a PR standpoint. "In all crisis situations, recalls or otherwise, companies need to be swift to respond, honest with the audiencesmedia, the general public, affected patients, physiciansand consistent in all communications and messaging," says Smith of Siemens. "While legal and regulatory guidelines might govern the approach, the communications professional should push for the fullest disclosure of information allowed. In these cases, allowing audiences to speculate during a time of no or little information can create unnecessary concern and may even give the story more legs from a media perspective."
In formulating a response to a crisis situation, Thompson says companies should take into consideration multiple communications vehicles. "When the crisis hits, a company needs to communicate with its key audiences as completely as possible, as quickly as possible, using every vehicle at its disposalincluding blogs, press conferences, meetings with customers, and Webcasts," he says. "More than ever before, customers have the ability to communicate to the marketplace about a company's performance. Companies need to be prepared to support those customers that are evangelists for its efforts, and counter those that are vigilantes."
In addition to being transparent and responsive to requests for information, Fischer says that it's also important to consider the face that is paired with the information. "One thing that is quite important is that senior management and the company's CEO be front and center in a crisis," he says. "Whether it's a clin- ical issue or a lawsuit, the CEO is responsible for the reputation of the company."
Times of crisis can also leave companies vulnerable to attacks from competitors. "In a highly competitive environment, competitors can exaggerate any of your products' drawbacks and side effects to gain advantage," says Melissa Diamond, a principal at Team PR. "It's key to track what the competition is saying about you. This can be accomplished through media clipping servicesand simply by visiting competitors' Web sites on a regular basis."
Advance Planning. Although many company crises cannot be anticipated or avoided, the aftermath of such occurrences can be effectively managed by having a response plan in place before a crisis strikes. "Advance preparation is extremely beneficial to managing a crisis, but unfortunately it is not often implemented by companies," says Jason Rando, vice president of the Ruth Group (New York City). "The reason is simple: companies don't want to contemplate the worst-case scenarios that one must consider when anticipating a crisis. However, planning for such unlikely events can make the difference between survival and implosion."
"Crisis communications plans should include a variety of materials, including draft documents such as both internal and external announcements, question-and-answer briefs, corporate backgrounders and fact sheets, presentations, and other materials as appropriate," Wolfe says. "Also important is a set list of procedures for assembly of the team, responsibilities, and identified spokespeople who will represent the company to the media and affected communities."
Fischer stresses the importance of formalizing crisis procedures. "Companies can't be prepared for every type of crisis, but they can be prepared to deal with the various steps and functions inherent in all crises," he says. "Too often, however, these crisis plans don't get put down on paper."
Among the many hats that company executives wear is that of a company spokesperson. While some company leaders are born public speakersarticulate, charismatic, and comfortable in front of a microphoneothers may prefer to keep their comments within boardroom walls. Regardless of their personal inclinations, at some time or another many executivesparticularly those at the topwill be called on to speak in the capacity of an official spokesperson.
"It is very important for all spokespeople to have some level of media training before doing an interview," says Rando. "For some individuals who are already comfortable answering questions and speaking publicly, the media training can be as simple as reminding them to be succinct with their answers and never speak off the record, no matter how casual the interview appears. For others, formal media training may be necessary. In such instances, it is crucial that the person being trained be an attentive participant and receptive to criticism."
According to Paul Hendley, vice president for life sciences at public relations firm ABI (New York City), media training is important to help prevent executives from being caught off-guard during a press conference or one-on-one interview. "In addition to product positioning, executives need to be prepared for general business questions, including questions concerning competitors," he says.
Toshiba conducts media relations training for its senior executives and its product marketing managers, as well as executives in other key positions within the company. "This training focuses on clear communication skillshow best can we take very technical, clinical messages and communicate them clearly to our target audiences," Wolfe says. "That training includes development of key messages, question-and-answer training, and on-camera training.
"People are often intimidated by the media interview experience," she adds. "We find that simulating an interview can help our trainees understand how to meet the needs of the interviewer and the publication, as well as provide educational, helpful information and get our messages across."
Similarly, Siemens has implemented a companywide media and speaker training program. "We have contracted with an outside trainer--a former New York City TV anchor and reporter--to run the training for us, as we've found that an outside trainer typically is able to attract better attendance and will be taken more seriously by the executives," Smith says. "We focus on helping the executives stay on message, guide questioning, and become better storytellers."
Public relations plays a role in nearly every aspect of a medical device manufacturer's business, from generating interest among investors and launching products to maintaining contact with customers and ensuring appropriate communications with regulators. As the faces and voices of their companies, executives play critical roles in ensuring that PR strategies and messages consistently fall in line with the missions and objectives of their companies.
"Companies should use public relations--whether internal or external--to achieve their strategic business goals," Thompson says. "Effective public relations protects, preserves, and enhances the value of the company. Each company needs to evaluate how best to use communication to achieve its goals."