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As a public relations officer in the health care industry you have an exceptional opportunity to use your persuasive skills to effect change in people’s lives. In addition to your customary public relations duties, such as writing news releases to send to the media, you will devise strategies designed to exact behavior change from individuals leading to healthier lifestyles. Myriad examples abound, such as smoking cessation to increasing vaccination rates among low-income children.
Public Relations for the Public
Your role as a public relations officer -- in any industry -- is to build relationships that will benefit all parties in those relationships. You gain the trust of a reporter so that he will deliver news about your organization, and in turn he trusts that you will proactively feed him accurate information that his audiences want and need. You still do this in health care, but your motivation is typically less self-serving. If you work for a nonprofit diabetes association, for example, your concern is how to reduce the incidences of juvenile diabetes without regard as to how that affects your organization’s bottom line. You will typically expand your relationship-building efforts to include individuals and organizations that influence others, such as teachers, physicians and parents.
Deciphering and Delivering Complex Information
All PR officers need to rely on research on subject matter and what types of messages resonate with specific audiences. For example, some people respond well to visual messages, while others prefer reading information. You also need to have an expert’s grasp of your topic, which in health care means staying abreast of current research that can affect the way health conditions are diagnosed, managed and treated. You must often boil complex research down into simple, easily understood messages that won’t intimidate the public -- but without insulting them. Additionally, you need to test your messages and communication materials with various audiences to ensure clarity and comprehension.
Partnerships Are Paramount
A large part of your job is to create awareness about a health issue and then educate people about it. That alone may cause some individuals to modify their behavior or seek help. For others, though, changing behavior is not just difficult, but often unwanted. PR officers working in health care know that leveraging partnerships with other organizations and influential individuals can help. The savvy PR officer will recruit celebrities, such as musicians and actors, to help deliver messages. Joint events with health associations, clinics or hospitals can help attendance and offset costs. These partnerships also bring consistency to your messages; your audiences are more likely to retain correct information if their doctors are conveying the same information that you are placing in the media.
Monitor and Measure
The PR officer has budgeting responsibilities. Health campaigns can be expensive, and you don’t want to initiate one campaign and have it cost so much money that you can’t do anything else until next year. One way to expend funds optimally is to measure what people know about your issue now. This way you won’t waste time crafting and delivering information they already know. Once you’ve implemented a campaign, use online surveys to see if your messages are working. Ask questions to compare your audience's knowledge to pre-campaign days. Do this again at the end of the campaign; if there is significant increased awareness and education, you can move on to behavior-changing strategies or to another topic.
In some organizations, public relations officers are referred to as specialists or managers. You typically need a bachelor’s degree in public relations, speech, journalism or some other communications degree to gain entry, with additional experience or a master’s degree for the upper-level positions of chief public relations officer, director or vice president. If you don’t have a basic grasp of medical terminology and concepts, consider augmenting your PR experience with relevant health course work. Anatomy, sociology and biology are all good choices. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the 2010 annual median pay for PR managers and specialists was $57,550 a year in all industries.
- Public Relations Society of America: Health Care Communications Careers
- American Public Health Association: Health Communication Working Group
- Natrona County School District: Job Description -- Chief Public Relations Officer
- The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation: Health Communication and Media Partnerships
- Salisbury University: Health Communication Employers
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Public Relations Managers and Specialists
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