Now We’ve Got Bad Blood: Lessons for Health Public Relations in a Post-Theranos World

As trial proceedings kicked off for Elizabeth Holmes, former CEO and founder of Theranos, a collective post-traumatic stress could presumably be felt amongst health public relations (PR) pros and journalists alike. I was a chipper, young Account Executive in B2B health PR when the popular blood sampling company met its highly publicized downfall

The premise of the scandal was simple, but the consequences were dire. Holmes was charged with 12 counts of fraud for grossly misrepresenting the effectiveness of the company’s supposedly revolutionary miniature blood testing machines, as well as the company’s revenue. Prosecutors suggest that Holmes knowingly lied to investors, media and partners at Walgreens and Safeway. In truth, the machines delivered inaccurate lab results to patients, many of whom were left to agonize over conditions they didn’t actually have. The trust gaps this incident manifested were a sobering lesson for the industry: marketing communications are a fine line to walk between messaging and objectivity – especially in a space like healthcare, where your product impacts the lives and wellbeing of its audience. 

Many journalists retracted stories about Theranos from past years, and from there on, they would be far more critical of the companies they spotlighted in their coverage. On the PR side, this has ushered in a new era of accountability and credibility in the way we craft communications with media. Here are the key lessons health PR professionals and their clients can implement in the post-Theranos landscape to earn trust and make headway on their media goals. 

Third-party validation is a must for media. 
Whether in beta-testing, early commercialization, fully established in your sector, third party validation can make all the difference in garnering press coverage. Many journalists, especially business-tier press like the Wall Street Journal, consider this a prerequisite to secure an interview today.  

Some customers may be unwilling or not allowed to participate in media inquiries. Others may be hungry to tout their innovation and seize the opportunity for join publicity. Seeding this question in the sales cycle enables vendors to proactively identify which customers are available for PR initiatives. If they cannot participate in media opportunities, blinded case studies can also showcase objective success and third-party validation while protecting the privacy of customers. 

Create your own third-party validation through studies and surveys. 
The need for customer validation has undoubtedly escalated in recent years. However, this is often easier said than done, especially in the highly regulated health industry, which keeps its public comments close to the vest. If a customer interview or case study is not possible, companies should feel compelled to conduct their own studies and surveys of the industry independently or in partnership with a third-party research firm. These can not only explore the efficacy of technology in their sector but glean a unique understanding the state of their sector, such as the use cases customers are most excited for and what issues are its highest priority to solve. 

According to a 2014 study, high-circulation newspapers were more likely to cover observational studies than other health research. What’s more this type of asset works double-duty to engage the media and equip your sales and product teams with fresh understanding of prospective customers and their needs. 

If an internally-developed study or survey is not possible, all is not lost. Timely studies from reputable analyst groups and research organizations can be a great asset in asserting your point of view on an issue, and there is no shortage of them. 

Executive-authored bylines help fuel public trust and showcase deep expertise. 
The shrinking of editorial staff at publications, spurred only further by the pandemic, has made byline opportunities commonplace. Many may assume that an article penned by a journalist has more merit than a piece of content written by an expert within the company. However, this misses a crucial opportunity to expand brand awareness and search engine optimization (SEO), while also building public trust through a steady cadence of thought leadership. 

Are interviews and news announcements still important? Of course they are. However, when a big news announcement or interview opportunity comes through a reporter’s inbox, the first thing they will do is search for the company online. Bylines are a great way for reporters – as well as prospective customers, investors and partners – to glean the voice and point of view of leading experts at the company. Companies should strive for a variety of coverage, including bylines, to holistically showcase the company in the public sphere. 

Positive change so often comes from the realization of hard truths. Regardless of the forthcoming outcome of the Theranos trial, PR pros in health and in the PR industry at large can and should reflect on this incident as a good thing for the future of our work. It has helped us to become more creative, resourceful and accountable, and in turn, boosted the individual value of each piece of media out clients receive. 

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