Why the need for specialist PR has never been greater

People talk extensively about how media has changed, but they miss one of the obvious ways that change affects how successful PR is, particularly in fields like healthcare and the environment.

Before journalism degrees, journalists often came out of university having completed a degree in a field of interest – history, science, English, politics – all of which helped them carve a successful writing and/or broadcasting career in one or more of these specialisms. One example is Lawrence McGingty, former ITV science and medical correspondent, who has a degree in Zoology!

With so many media outlets available, the unstoppable online shift and the move away from the ‘job for life’ mentality, modern writers can be forgiven for not all having the deep understanding of science and health in the same way as their predecessors might have.

This is where health PR comes into its own and it’s why clients over the last 25 years have turned to Gravitas to tell their stories.

Good science reporting can save lives

If you think I’m exaggerating take a look at the coverage of a UK report in 1998 that wrongly linked the MMR vaccine to autism. The report was published in respected medical journal The Lancet and started gaining momentum in mainstream media in 2001/02. It was viewed sceptically by experts and retracted fully in 2010, but today, almost 20 years since it was published, people around the world continue not to vaccinate their children based on their understanding of the story. In 2008 the US had no cases of measles, but by 2015 the country recorded its first measles-related death, which can be directly correlated to the press coverage.

Top tips for pitching health stories

1. Know the material

This may sound basic, but if you can’t explain the results of a scientific study with the confidence and understanding of the lead scientist but in language that’s easy for journalists to understand, then you’re not doing your job.

2. Don’t assume a journalist’s background knowledge of the subject

Sure, you can pitch to one of the national science correspondents who has a background writing about complex heart transplants simply by sending them a precis of the study abstract and comment from the lead author. But try doing that to national TV magazine programme and you’ll get nowhere. Tailoring your pitch to each writer doesn’t mean dumbing down the story, but making it accessible for all audiences.

3. Don’t sensationalise data

It’s a PR’s responsibility to resist any temptation or suggestion from stakeholders to sensationalise data in order to get better coverage. While this is true of all stories, health PR has an obligation to report the truth and not mislead journalists or the public. If the organisation you work for isn’t prepared to see the true story in the public domain, don’t put it out there at all.

4. Have a strong case study

Journalists will want to be able to show the man on the street what this new study means for him and his friends and family. A powerful real life story to go alongside the study results will help bring it to life for people and make the science relevant to them.

5. Understand the importance of PR's role

When scientific progress presents ethical dilemmas, the truth can sometimes be misrepresented. One example to consider is the creation of human embryos for research. The media was a key battleground for this debate – helping people navigate the ethical questions the idea posed, reflecting popular culture and guiding the political debate. When the Government ruled embryos could be created for scientific use it was a clear win for the PR campaign which had carefully explained the science to the media and made obvious the future opportunities for research. In truth, the debate could have gone either way, but it’s no exaggeration to say that PR helped secure the legislative win.

Tim Traverse-Healy, founder of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, said that “truth, paramount concern for the public good and genuine dialogue” were key ingredients for successful PR and nowhere is this more apparent than in the health sector.