Intro to Healthcare PR Part Two by Debbie Harvey, APR

Let me start by saying that growing up, I never considered myself to be a science nerd.  Science was never really something around which I foresaw my adult life revolving.  As a student, it stood for spilled chemicals in laboratories, confounding physics equations and the dissection of poor, defenseless organisms.  However, a turning point that perhaps, looking back nearly 20 years later, drove me toward the scientific side of public relations was the day my best friend and I had to make up a high school biology class after hours.

The assignment wound up being a horrendous but hilarious experience—we had to dissect a fetal pig, separating and marking each organ.  While we vacillated between bouts of laughing and gagging, the lab door opened and in walked our admissions director—and actor Martin Short!  He was filming in New York City and looking at our school for his daughter at the time.  He took one look at our messy “operating table,” our filthy lab coats and our horrified faces and said, smirking, “You two aren’t enjoying this too much, I see,” to which I responded, “Imagine how this pig feels!”  I was already lobbying for the rights of the patient at a young age.

But I digress. Suffice to say, the 15-year-old me did not prophecy that the 30-(ahem)-something-year-old version would spend her days researching countless medical conditions, reading scientific abstracts, meeting with advocacy organizations, developing social media programs and media training healthcare professionals and patients.  But that’s what I do nearly every day after catching up on the morning’s news about this ever-evolving industry. And, admittedly, I still love it.  So long as no one hands me a scalpel and a pig.

How Do You Define Healthcare PR?

I’ve come to find throughout my career that healthcare PR is somewhat undefinable, which is what makes it undeniably exciting.  Healthcare is a niche that is constantly changing, given legal and regulatory challenges in spaces like social media, coupled with the powerful changes that healthcare reform has – and will continue to have – for patients, healthcare professionals, advocacy and payors.  For me, PR wasn’t a hard career choice, as it’s the perfect confluence of strategizing, socializing, researching and writing. In fact, I’m pretty sure it found me.  The healthcare focus, though, was a happy accident, one that started as just a job but wound up becoming a fulfilling career. 

Like nothing else, healthcare PR provides the satisfaction of knowing you are helping people at the end of the day: helping patients better understand what a diagnosis may mean; helping patients and loved ones manage through life’s health challenges with tools and resources to be better informed and empowered; helping discover ways to jumpstart and facilitate meaningful conversations between patients and healthcare professionals that may not have been happening. Some of the most moving moments in my career have been when I’ve helped coordinate patient speaking opportunities at client headquarters, bringing together employees across multiple disciplines to hear first-hand how their work positively impacts people’s lives.  It’s a gratifying feeling to know that an idea you had, a meeting to which you contributed or a program you built went to helping people get better and feel better at the end of the day.

Your Career Roadmap

As a new professional, you may occasionally (or often) feel like a sponge, looking to soak up as much information as you can.  Healthcare PR offers an opportunity to never lose that feeling: continuous environmental, economic and societal changes make healthcare PR a rewarding challenge, and I would encourage you to learn more about it.  At GolinHarris, we often say healthcare PR is the art and science of blending clinical understanding and knowledge with best practices of consumer marketing.  But regardless of what area of PR you may choose to pursue, seek to be challenged every day.  Read industry publications.  Get more involved with PRSA and network.  Find a mentor.  Ask questions.  Don’t balk at “no.”  Learn and adjust.  And above all, have a good time doing your job. 

Debbie HarveyDebbie Harvey, MS, APR, is a senior vice president in healthcare at GolinHarris.  She holds a master’s degree from Northwestern University in integrated marketing communications and is president-elect of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) Chicago Chapter.  A Big Apple native, she has learned to love the Windy City nearly as much. Follow her on Twitter, connect with her on Facebook, or email her at

Intro to Healthcare PR by Christine Kotler

Styrofoam wig heads. Wig heads?!? I needed two and I needed them fast because the news media was coming in one hour. My featured physician expert wanted to use Styrofoam wig heads to demonstrate a point about deep-sea diving and respiratory function. After a half-dozen calls and old-fashioned research in the Yellow Pages (years ago, in a pre-Google era), I finally found wig heads! I knew then that public relations, and especially healthcare PR, was going to be an adventure. This field requires resourcefulness, creativity, confidence, strategic thinking and endless amounts of energy. With more than 20 years in the business, my career in communications has been rewarding, challenging, interesting, exciting and fun.

I currently serve as the assistant vice president for marketing and public relations at Baptist Health South Florida—the largest not-for-profit healthcare organization in the region—based in Miami. On a typical day, I grab coffee (essential!) and my iPhone and start checking email. I also scan news headlines and social media sites on my iPad to see what is happening locally and nationally. Most days involve meeting with internal clients, handling media requests, brainstorming with staff, strategizing about opportunities and developing creative communications plans. Whether promoting a new center, treatment or pitching a unique story, we are constantly looking for ways to position Baptist Health as the go-to source for leading-edge healthcare information.    

Healthcare is one of the few growth industries in today’s tough economy. Recently, the national dialogue on healthcare reform has cast a negative spotlight on hospitals and healthcare organizations. To me, this is a great opportunity for PR professionals to reframe the conversation and focus attention on what is right about healthcare through meaningful and compelling stories.

The realm of healthcare PR is broad – from promoting hospitals and physician services to developing patient education materials to promoting medical devices, new technology and new treatments. You may handle everything from crisis response to event planning, community relations to employee communications, to media relations and more. The variety is what makes this field so interesting – no day is ever the same.  

Whether you are just entering healthcare PR or considering a career in the field, you may find the following tips helpful. I try to keep them top of mind in my own practice.

Top 10 Tips for New Professionals in Healthcare PR (not necessarily in rank order):

1. Be flexible:  Every day is different in PR – whether you are in healthcare or another industry. You need to be nimble, ready to change course and quick to seize opportunities on behalf of your clients.

2. Ask questions: You are new at this. Your boss expects you to work hard and to bring your best each day, but she also expects you to learn by asking questions.

3. Listen, listen, listen: And then, listen some more. Often, I hear students and young professionals comment that they entered the PR field because they “love people” and they are “good communicators.” Good communication starts with good listening. Before you can offer a client a solution, you need to really listen to how they define the problem or challenge.

4. Appreciate failure: This field is not for the faint of heart. Despite neurotic planning and the development of a dozen backup plans, things happen. Your beautiful outdoor event is blown away with hurricane-force winds or your celebrity speaker is a no-show as more than 500 guests eagerly anticipate her arrival. When something goes wrong, learn from it.

5. Play nicely with others: Throughout your career, you are going to work with a lot of people – some of whom you will like and others you will not. Business is about relationships.

6. Be resourceful: Know how to find the Styrofoam wig heads. And many other strange things that you will be asked to magically produce minutes before they are needed. Thank goodness for Google and FedEx.

7. Accept criticism with grace: Remember to say “thanks” when a supervisor or boss offers feedback or criticism about your work. Appreciate the fact that an experienced pro took the time to provide guidance.

8. Do your homework: Healthcare is complex. As communicators, we have to sort out the clinical jargon and develop materials that are easy to read and understand. Learn the terminology. Take classes or seminars in marketing, budgeting, healthcare administration.    

9. Show compassion: In healthcare, we have the unique position of caring for patients and their families when they are most vulnerable. We have a tremendous responsibility to be thoughtful, transparent and compassionate in our communications to various audiences.    

10. Look before you leap: Your mom was right. Before jumping into a project or charging ahead to seize an opportunity, pause for a minute to make sure you have a solid plan. PR is fast-moving, but a wise mentor once taught me that “speed kills.” While you need to be ready for action, PR requires strategic thinking and careful planning.

Rapid change and growth in healthcare, coupled with dynamic changes in PR and communication, make it an exciting time to be in this field – for new professionals and for seasoned practitioners.

Christine Kotler is assistant vice president for marketing and public relations at Baptist Health South Florida. She is a member of the PRSA Health Academy Executive Committee. She can be reached at Follow Baptist Health on Twitter.

Intro To Series… Healthcare PR by Heather Sliwinski

If I were a betting woman, I’d say my experience as a new professional in the healthcare industry is similar to other New Pros’ positions out there. The skills we use are generally the same—they are just applied in a different way.

The daily life of a New Pro is quite different than that of a student, or even an intern. The transition can be challenging. Working for a small, growing drug testing laboratory, I was given a great deal of responsibility early on that spanned all areas of communications. One minute I was designing our two quarterly newsletters and the next I was producing and hosting an educational video series for the Web. From day one, I was pushing past my limits and gaining responsibilities to which no company had ever entrusted me as an unpaid intern. I was dabbling in design, communications, event planning and management. If I had to sum up my biggest responsibilities into a brief job description, it would look something like this:

Design: I create and edit all promotional materials, including brochures, direct mailings and quarterly newsletters, for current and potential clients.

Exhibit coordination: I manage our attendance at over 30 conference exhibitions, working with conference sponsors and third-party vendors, as well as representing the company at a number of conferences myself.

Team leader: I coordinate larger marketing projects with third-party firms that have included the overhaul of our website, identity package and overall brand image.

Writing and editing: I write and edit copy for promotional materials, the website and our two quarterly newsletters.

What’s more important than a list of my duties, I think, is an overview of the skills expected from me on a daily basis:

Self-starter: The training wheels are off now. Gone are the days of endless small tasks at an internship or syllabi from professors. In my position, I am expected take a lead role and tackle projects before they are assigned to me, as well as bring new ideas to the table. Make suggestions, take risks, make mistakes and try again. A positive energy and willingness to participate and learn outweigh any ideas that don’t pan out.

Flexibility, multi-tasker: As I stated earlier, my position covers all areas of marketing and beyond. In the current economy, not only does a New Pro have to be flexible on what area of PR or advertising they want to work in, but they have to be willing to change direction at a moment’s notice. Companies want someone who can work well under pressure and don’t get frazzled when their typical routine (if you even have one) is disrupted. I don’t know how many times a week a printer will break down or a colleague needs a promotional piece by tomorrow, and I have to drop what I’m working on and tend to the urgent matter. It’s all part of the fun in PR.

Fast learner: To be honest, my undergrad self never would have guessed that I’d be working for a drug testing laboratory after graduation. I’ve never been that big of a science buff. USDTL didn’t expect me to know the ins and outs of the industry before they hired me, but they did expect me to be open-minded and capable at picking up knowledge quickly. Today, I am able to communicate to current and potential clients our wide range of services and the science behind them. Being a fast learner goes hand-in-hand with being a self-starter. When I come up with new projects for the marketing department, that often results in me diving head first into software I’ve never seen or a social media outlet I’ve never used. To achieve our goals in a timely fashion, I have to pick those up sooner rather than later. And, with the world of PR and technology changing at a rapid pace, there is always a new PR tactic with which to familiarize myself. I frequently attend workshops and seminars, including those provided by PRSA, to continue my professional education.

So, the only question left is, how does working in the healthcare industry differ from other areas of PR?

I can truly say that working in healthcare has been more rewarding than any other position I’ve held. What I do on a daily basis directly affects the health and lives of others. If selling just one more drug test aided in the treatment of one newborn, it’s all worthwhile, isn’t it? Healthcare may be tied with the unknown right now, but the uncertainty has opened up opportunities for great impact. Working for a lab may not be as glamorous as a “Mad Men” agency setting or working PR for an entertainment giant, but your clients and colleagues are passionate about what they do, and I consider that a privilege for any professional in the work force today.

Heather Sliwinski is the marketing communications manager at United States Drug Testing Laboratories, a forensic laboratory providing alcohol and drug testing services to hospitals, government agencies, social services and drug treatment programs. Before joining the USDTL team, Sliwinski graduated from University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2008 with a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and Mass Communications and a Certificate in Business. She has held positions with a nonprofit, a Fortune 100 company, and her university. Sliwinski is a member of PRSA National and Chicago Chapter, as well as the New Professionals and Health Academy Sections. Feel free to connect with her at or find her on LinkedIn at