The Challenge of Healthcare PR in China

By Stephanie Yu

A digital presence is crucial

Digital is the most important platform for healthcare communications. Outside of the big three cities — Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou — awareness of many health issues is low. So once we move beyond these big cities, we have to ask how consumers are getting access to healthcare information. The answer in most cases is through online platforms.

However, it is important to remember that, in terms of healthcare, the digital market in China is still maturing. Using digital to reach out to parents only really began after 2010 and a lot of clients are still trying to figure it out. In China the majority of healthcare programs are sponsored, with most initiated by international pharmaceutical companies, so the opportunity is certainly there for companies to engage digitally. But at the same time, consumers are often unsure of the accuracy of the information they are finding online, so brands need to make sure they are presenting clear and accessible information from a scientific perspective.

Local knowledge goes a long way

Healthcare companies — in particular multinational corporations — need to understand the local dynamics and landscape in order to be able to engage. In the digital space, for instance, they need to be familiar with localized online user behavior, as well as the sheer range of social media platforms and the mechanisms behind these platforms. Local know-how is needed to ensure the message cuts through.

This is also true for more traditional media relations. In China, a campaign strategy may be the same across multiple city tiers, but the tactics will be different — more tailored for local needs. The way media is run in Shanghai, for example, is very different than, say, Inner Mongolia. There are very different levels of maturity. In Shanghai, there are more choices in terms of publications, while in less developed markets there is not only very limited space in the media for healthcare, but also the lines between reporting and advertising are very blurred. If we don’t have the understanding of these local market idiosyncrasies, we will not be able to deliver insight to clients.

Talent is there but needs nurturing

To deliver to clients the level of digital expertise and local knowledge that China demands, the industry needs to make sure it is bringing a strong crop of talent into the healthcare sector. This is not easy. Everyone who has been working in a PR agency for three to four years has a basic skill set, but not all of them can do healthcare. Why not? Well, for one thing, clients can often be more intense than in other practices. Also, the specialist media can very quickly sense a lower level of expertise.

We need to do a lot of things to raise the level of healthcare communications talent, especially in terms of mid-level talent. We need to push people to get knowledge — the evolution of Chinese healthcare, government reforms and the competitive landscape. They must want to learn. Healthcare is a practice where we are doing things that can really make a difference and healthcare communications can be a way for patients to get often life-saving information. As such, it is a hugely rewarding pace for talented communications professionals