Navigating the Changing Healthcare Media Landscape

Parinaz Farzin

Image depicting two hands reaching towards eachother with a graphic representative of interconnectedness surrounded by icons for smart phone, laptop, siloetted person, microphone, video, shopping cart, envelope, television, document, headset, location, and globe

Since the beginning of public relations, media coverage has been the bread and butter of a successful program. However, the traditional model of media engagement has been upended in the past decade and has dramatically changed just in the past five years. To execute a successful healthcare communications program, understanding this new media landscape and how to navigate it is critical.

Our team at Merryman Communications has gained insights into the new media world through our continuous interactions with writers and editors. As one of the media experts on the team, I not only work closely with clients to develop compelling narratives, but I also proactively pitch media contacts daily across healthcare trade, business and consumer outlets. We build relationships on behalf of our clients to secure positive coverage. These ongoing efforts help us understand what works and how to plot the right course.

Since newsroom staff continues to shrink and there are fewer health reporters available, news must be both timely and likely to draw “clicks.”

How has the media environment changed?

The media heyday of the 1980s has long passed. In 1989, employment in the newspaper industry hit a peak of 56,900 editorial jobs. However, by 2010, newsroom employment had fallen 27% to 41,500. This number has been slashed even further as many outlets have closed, merged or transitioned to paid newsletters or online news only. This graph from Pew Research shows the significant percentages of layoffs at leading newspapers and digital outlets from 2017 – 2020.

Graphs depicting a decline in layoffs at newspapers and digital-native news outlets

Since newsroom staff continues to shrink and there are fewer health reporters available, news must be both timely and likely to draw “clicks.” Furthermore, as a result of the pandemic, the current healthcare media landscape is less predictable. Another major international outbreak can happen at any moment, throwing editorial calendars out the door as newsrooms dedicate all their resources to covering the new health scare.

Pew Research’s most recent “State of the News Media” showed that the news industry has transitioned away from print, television and radio into digital spaces. This matches trends in media consumption: 82% of Americans get their news on their digital devices and 50% from social media at least sometimes. These stark findings demonstrate that not only is it important for a story to be available online but it is also critical that it is shared and amplified across social media to ensure it reaches your key audiences.

How to succeed despite the challenges

As the healthcare media environment has changed dramatically, so have our approaches. Following are a few considerations and recommendations for a successful media relations program.

1. A COVID-19 news hook still drives coverage

While the worst of the pandemic seems to have passed, the topic of COVID-19 continues to be a key driver of healthcare media coverage. Many reporters continue to focus on the COVID-19 news hook, be it the impact on employees, workplaces, hospitals or supply chain. While not every client announcement has this news hook, we have found that it can be more difficult to break through without one.

2. Sponsored opportunities are important for success

We have seen an increase in the interplay between newsrooms and pay-for-play opportunities, such as sponsored content or speaking opportunities, as media outlets seek to monetize their platforms in order to stay alive. We believe that paid opportunities can be an important part of a communications strategy, enabling clients to tell their story in their own words while still being amplified via the media outlet’s website, newsletters and social channels. This is why a holistic media strategy that encompasses editorial engagement, paid content, event/speaking opportunities and social media is crucial.

3. So much competition and so little time

The shrinking media landscape has resulted in strong competition to gain news coverage. Announcing a new product or interesting technology is often not enough to garner interest and media coverage. Life science and business reporters respond more to evidence-based and timely news hooks such as new data, statistics or research.

As the healthcare media environment has changed dramatically, so have our approaches.

4. Respond when a reporter says: I need an expert!

Companies willing to showcase their depth of expertise are more likely to be successful at securing coverage. Offering journalists commentary on industry issues beyond the company’s specific products or highlighting executives other than the CEO can help expand coverage opportunities. Sometimes expert requests require a quick turnaround, but they are worth the effort as they can help build rapport with media and keep your company top of mind with reporters. By identifying such expert media opportunities and responding quickly, we have been able to secure coverage for our clients in top outlets such as The New York Times and HealthDay.

5. Pictures and videos help sell the story

Media are more reliant on companies to provide compelling assets given they often do not have the resources to capture or create their own. Announcements should always be accompanied by high-resolution pictures, and to really stand out, it is important to provide unique assets like short-form videos, infographics or graphs.

6. Education never ends

When launching a new healthcare product or building awareness of an existing one, sometimes there is an education barrier with reporters. Remember that these days, not all reporters covering a healthcare beat have that background. Furthermore, many are skeptical of the major claims made by companies, especially in the medical space, due to the recent unravelling of a few notable companies and product failures. As such, it is important to educate reporters early on and provide robust information, like existing data or upcoming clinical trial results under embargo, to support your announcement.

Evolving with the landscape

While the media landscape continues to evolve, the team at Merryman Communications always has our pulse on the latest trends and knows how to leverage them to help our clients achieve their goals. From MassDevice to The Wall Street Journal, our track record speaks for itself.