Healthcare Public Relations: 3 Takeaways for a International Conference

DJG’s Chris Martin, Anne O’Day & Anna Souhrada talk about healthcare public relations for the International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer and their recent work onsite at the World Conference On Lung Cancer in Barcelona, Spain.
Posted: 5 years ago

Handling healthcare public relations for a large international lung cancer association can be a true challenge. You have to deal with 130 journalists from dozens of countries; write about complex medical research and work closely with doctors, all the while staying on strategy for your client.

To summarize the meeting, DJG staffers Anne O’Day, Anna Souhrada and Chris Martin share lessons learned and tips from their experience working in healthcare public relations on this project.  Here are 3 takeaways when applying healthcare public relations strategy and tactics:

  1. Plan your distribution and pitching channels
  2. Be prepared to write
  3. Onsite, be flexible

Chris Martin: Welcome to the David James Group podcast, Stir and Tell. In this edition, we’ll be talking about our public relations client, the International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer. Our team recently came back from Barcelona, Spain where we completed an onsite project where we ran press operations for the association’s World Conference on Lung Cancer meeting.

Chris Martin: My name is Chris Martin. I’m the Vice President of Public Relations for the agency.

Anna Souhrada: I’m Anna Souhrada. I’m an Account Coordinator.

Anne O’Day: And I’m Anne O’Day, Account Director.

Chris Martin: Obviously a project of this complexity takes a long time to plan. Our agency, working with the client, started in May, where we looked at the media policies that the press would cover. An international meeting like this attracts a lot of international press, certainly mostly cancer trade press and healthcare press, that come to the meeting on site. So we set up a lot of policies that help guide what credentials the media would have to present to us. What embargoes would be created that would communicate to the press when the research could be available for them to cover. And interview policies that guided the way they could interact with the researchers on-site.

Healthcare Public Relations: 3 Takeaways For A International Conference

Chris Martin: Once those were established, we started emailing and communicating with the press. On a weekly basis, we would get a login from the client to check the credentials of all the media that was signing up.

Chris Martin: Every week, there’d be 10 or 15 press members from around the country, around the world, excuse me, that would register to cover the meeting. We would have to check their credentials, review the work they had done, and communicate with them on additional information that we would request from them.

Chris Martin:  As the summer progressed, the number of people registering to cover the meeting grew, until the week before we left we had more than 130 journalists signed up to cover the meeting.

Chris Martin: As we went through the meeting, the most important thing we had to do was sift through the research that was submitted by various lung cancer specialists. We worked with the various committees that the client had established. The committee members received the abstracts for the research that were submitted and then each committee member would score the research based on a one to 10 scoring system, with 10 being the most interesting, and most worthy of being in the daily press briefings or doing a news release.

Chris Martin: Once we had all that sorted out, we began to plow through the writing, and the back and forth that we had to do with the researchers to come up with the various news releases, email pitches, and other things to start communicating with the press about the meeting.

Chris Martin: Additionally, because this is the client’s largest meeting of the year, they also wanted to make other announcements. For instance, I know Anna wrote a lot of news releases about the various awards that were being given out to members, advocates, patients, and other researchers as well. Anna, why don’t you talk a little bit about what you did for that.

Anna Souhrada: We actually wrote 31 individual news releases over the course of this time, and we had several award news releases within that, which talked about different awards that would be presented during the conference, as well as 19 scientific abstract news releases. But that didn’t even include the press briefings and media alerts that we would send out before and after the meetings. So there was a ton of releases going out before the meeting, during the meeting, and even after the meeting, I would say.

Chris Martin: Yeah, even after the meeting. For instance, we’ll be doing a survey of the journalists that covered the meeting on-site to find out what their experience was like, things that we could do better next year, and just their overall opinion of the way the meeting went.

Chris Martin: When you have that many journalists on-site, they’re basically our customers. We want to know how they experienced the meeting, what could be done better, and what changes we can make for the next meeting, which will be in Singapore next August.

Chris Martin: Once we got on-site, Anne O’Day and I had the challenge of working in an embedded form with over 130 journalists that had signed up to cover the meeting. Anne, why don’t you tell us a little bit about what that experience was like, the challenges that we had to face, and what was it like working with reporters face to face? A lot of people in PR don’t really meet reporters face to face. It’s all email and social media. So it’s a very unique experience to be exposed directly with journalists from all over the world.

Anne O’Day: Yeah, definitely. As Chris mentioned, we were really embedded in the press room. We had several occasions where there were so many media in the room, we didn’t have enough chairs. So it was a really successful engagement from my perspective.

Anne O’Day: We manned the press room for four full days and literally each of the days there were press in the room working from 7:00 AM to 7:00 PM. Sometimes they had to be kicked out.


Anne O’Day: But in addition to them working in there, we provided multiple interview rooms for them, where they could have scheduled interviews with the scientists, researchers, or doctors prior to getting on-site, or that they were able to try to schedule interviews during that time.

Anne O’Day: It got pretty chaotic during some of the days when there were many of the journalists looking for spaces to interview. We had to set up backdrops outside of the press room in order to accommodate some of the overflow during the heaviest times.

Anne O’Day: But I think working with them and also just the fact that it was international and we had multiple languages being spoken, and a very wide variety of news organizations that were there. It was really important for Chris and me to be accessible at all times, and to be able to work with them, not only making sure that they were following rules set out or policies set out by the organization, but also helping them manage their interview times and getting all of the access to the doctors and scientists that they needed.

Chris Martin: In addition to that, local media would show up and do stories. Invariably, they were video journalists or TV stations in some cases, and these folks required a special kind of handholding. They wanted access to the exhibit hall, the hallways, certain members, local members, had been set up to do interviews, so we had to escort them while they’re doing their stories at all times because the client wanted those journalists escorted personally by us. So we did that. That was a time consuming, but beneficial, activity, because they typically created stories that day or that evening, which were usually favorable. And we could show those to the client almost immediately, as you did with the one-story from Barcelona that you helped out on.

Chris Martin: Going from managing those onsite journalists to the nuts and bolts of the meeting, which were the daily press briefings, the scientific committee for the International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer scored all these abstracts and from those scores, they created abstracts that were worthy of being in the press briefing. Then we took those abstracts and wrote news releases from them. And then those were the core of the daily press briefing.

Chris Martin: The press briefings ranged from, I think, on the low end, five abstracts or five researchers, to seven or eight in some cases, and these had to be included in a 45 to 60 minute time window. So it was really important that the researchers were concise and that the moderator move things along so that everybody could get their presentations in and go through all their slides. Which is quite a challenge when you’re dealing with that kind of research, those kinds of researchers, in that tight timeline too.

Chris Martin: In addition to the press briefings, we would do summaries of those press briefings. So we would take each news release edited down to the bare essence, maybe two or three paragraphs, put it together in a summary. We would issue that to the onsite press list. We would also issue that via Eureka Alert, PR Newswire, and the various Cision lists that we set up.

Chris Martin: Anna, I wanted you to talk about the individual pitching that you did too because we’re dealing with a large number of journalists on one side of the equation, but ultimately all news stories are local stories. If a researcher is from Columbus, Ohio, or Schenectady, New York, or Stanford, California, or wherever, it’s still a local story to them. So we didn’t want to forget that aspect of the meeting too.

Anna Souhrada: Right. A lot of our award winners, we took their press releases and sent it to their communication… I don’t know what you would call it their…

Chris Martin: Communications or marketing staff member if it’s a hospital or an association.

Anna Souhrada: Right. So we sent it to them just to notify them that they were receiving an award, and if they wanted to cover it, they were more than welcome to. We also sent it to their local area, because we wanted to make sure that these stories were being covered internationally, not just in Barcelona or within a specific area in the United States. We wanted to make sure it was going to everyone and to make the award winners feel special that they were being recognized not only in Barcelona at the meeting, but as well in their own home towns too.

Chris Martin: Yeah, you really have to cover all the angles that a robust meeting like this creates. One of the interesting and somewhat surprising aspects of this meeting is the people on the peripheral of the research, not the researchers themselves, they were all pretty straightforward. We would email them drafts, or we would ask them questions, and they would generally be very responsive and answer questions clearly and concisely.

Chris Martin: But we also had to deal with the PR people for the drug companies that were sponsoring the research in many cases. So the embargo, the time that the research could actually be shared, was really important to them because they work for companies that are effected by the market and they’re affected by research.

Chris Martin: We had a number of email conversations, phone conversations, and then ultimately in-person conversations with the people that showed up about these very issues. We had to be very sensitive and clear about what we’re communicating to them and that they were clear in what we were trying to tell them in terms of when they could actually release their news, compared to when we would release ours and that we had to be on the same page about that.

Chris Martin: That was a bit of a challenge and not something that you can always plan for, just something that you have to deal with when it comes up.

Chris Martin: Speaking of things that were surprising, dealing with the onsite reporters who had interview requests and interview rooms was a challenge, wasn’t it Anne?

Anne O’Day: Definitely. It was. We’re often short on rooms because there were so many that were looking. We had some press who wanted to monopolize, I guess, the interview rooms. So it was a bit challenging working with them just because it was sensitive and that they had scheduled interviews and scheduled time, and it was very urgent that they get in. These researchers and physicians have such a tight schedule and so little free time to talk with the media that arranging the times appropriately became a bit of a challenge.

Chris Martin: It’s hard from a planning standpoint, in terms of space, that the conference planning vendor, they have to work several months out and they can only allocate so many rooms to us. They don’t know how many press are going to be on-site, but they have to lock in those rooms well in advance, and they gave us three rooms plus a hallway. We definitely used them, used all the space to the maximum all four days we were there. We worked out the difficulties and conflicts and problems onsite. That was just one of the things that we had to deal with. We tried to do it as best as possible.

Anne O’Day: Yeah, we had several times during the meeting where we just did not have enough backdrops, which means that the press tend to just go off and find a corner somewhere and try to handle their interviews and shoot their interviews that way. And that’s against policy. So it’s just the accommodating the press and working with them as a partner, but also making sure that we’re following the organization’s policies and making sure that the media adhere to them.

Chris Martin: Thanks for listening. Again, the podcast is available here (above) and we’ll also have a little article to go with it. If you have any questions (use the live chat feature in the corner), we’re happy to answer those about the work we did for the International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer in their World Conference on Lung Cancer in Barcelona. Thank you.

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