By Spitz (@SpitzStrategy)

A Worthy Cause

I got my glamorous start in medical writing as a freelancer for SOS Rhino, a non-profit, international foundation dedicated to preserving the five species in their natural habitats. Along with website edits I helped one of their researchers and benefactors write journal articles, as she was busy traveling the world electro-ejaculating rhinos with cattle prods and arm-length rubber gloves‚îI think I still have pictures somewhere. She was a trooper.

Not only did the gig lead to assisting another researcher publish books with Cambridge Press, giving me the chops for clinical copywriting, but it heightened my awareness of communication surrounding highly sensitive, complicated topics. After all, endangered species represent a problem that goes far beyond the threat to genetic diversity, also entangling biology, politics, international trade, ethics, law, and other specialties.

Perhaps most interesting is the innate, and no doubt justified, defensiveness within the field. With so much at stake, and so many conflicting interests at play, folks who have committed their professional and often personal lives to saving endangered species face a daunting, conflicting task: On the one hand they need to broadly engage the public and private sectors to elicit support, yet on the other a single sliver of bad news can lead to disaster.

Brand Stewards as Game Wardens

That oxymoron of “defensive extraversion” or “paranoid exhibitionism” should come as no surprise to marketers, since navigating today’s social media world demands nothing less than wholeheartedly embracing such paradox. Gone are the broadcast media days when customers couldn’t talk back to a brand, and messaging was tightly controlled. Upstarts like Ralph Nader could declare Detroit “unsafe at any speed,” but the drivers themselves couldn’t.

Now thanks to social channels everyone can publish and proselytize. Customers can now click on a ratings tool star, make a Facebook comment, write a blog, or launch their own website or personal digital campaign. These opportunities fuel brand managers’ terror that one of their potentially dissatisfied customers or feckless employees will post a bad review, or be captured in a YouTube video that goes viral in a matter of hours.

The result? Brands that have historically been protected from the public they ostensibly serve have been pushed from apex predator to endangered species. The analogy is surprisingly effective, as “brand ecosystems” have been encroached by their own ravenous customers, who demand more and more of their resources in terms of communication, customer support, feedback, and ongoing, often real-time, engagement.

Topping the Endangered Species List: Healthcare Brands

Consider healthcare brands and their marketing stewards ‚ì including those in pharma, medical device, payers, hospital systems, and others ‚ì defensive even before the social media revolution, and now grappling with an exponential increase in countless potential PR and regulatory nightmares: Everything from adverse event reporting to reputation management concerns to opportunistic attorneys to justified whistleblowers to‚¶

So why are we surprised or even frustrated that basic professional and DTC marketing remains in the stone age, let alone healthcare social media? Excuses abound as to why they can’t indulge in social, such as non-demonstrable ROI, limited budget and resources, lack of expertise, etc. The core problem is the feeling that brands are under attack, and a protective marketing strategy is therefore necessary. Social media? Are you kidding?

But as orgs like SOS Rhino understand, protecting and saving an endangered species takes the exact opposite approach: Transparency, outreach, education, and engagement with constituents ‚ì both friend and foe. Even more importantly, it requires the emotional understanding and acceptance that vulnerability can’t and shouldn’t translate to self-imposed isolation: The world is talking, so brands have no choice but to join in.

Healthcare Brands as Living, Breathing Critters

The only way to bring about change in healthcare communications, especially pharma, medical device, and other proprietary marketing, is for their brand stewards to accept vulnerability and welcome dialogue. These brands are not Platonically perfect chunks of mindshare, but are instead analogous to life forms that must live, breath, and flourish in the open natural habit that is the diverse, complicated, risky, but dynamic international market place.

Pivotal to success is keeping the end-user in mind: The patient. They expect and deserve healthcare brands that are as human and hopefully as helpful as their personal physicians, nurses, and pharmacists. People relate to other people; the US government treats corporations like individuals, so healthcare marketers owe to it their customers to treat their brands as such. Nobody is perfect, including and especially brands: Honesty begets honesty.

So as experts in digital health let’s stop making excuses based on logistics, technology, or lack of regulatory oversight: Let’s instead embrace the reality that healthcare brands are and will remain as challenging, blemished, controversial, and imperfect as the people they’re designed to help ‚ì but also hopeful, flourishing, and brimming with actionable intelligence that ultimately improves the quality of life for millions worldwide.

The time has come to domesticate healthcare brands: Are you ready?

Michael Spitz , known most often as just "Spitz," is Editor-in-Chief of the Pixels & Pills and a prollific tweeter, blogger, and article writer, active in digital health across all specialties. Follow him @SpitzStrategy.



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