PR Profile: Healthcare PR specialist John Emmerson shares his insights on the COVID-19 vaccination rollout communication strategy
Can you please give a brief rundown of your career and work in the healthcare communications field?
I’ve been working in communications my entire career, both in the UK and then Australia for 15 years. The medical interest, which London Agency is all about, began in the UK and substantially developed here in Australia. Ultimately the reason behind that was a recognition that there’s nothing more important than your health. Instinctively we all know that’s true, and so as a patient, when you experience information blockages about your options, it can be really intimidating, confusing and frustrating.
We all know that information is power. When you’re talking about healthcare, the decisions you make have implications on quality of life and length of life. So given what’s at stake, it’s beholden on us to do the best job we can to translate complex health information into something compelling, intelligible and actionable, and that’s what we do as a business.
What interests you and what do you enjoy about working in this industry?
Healthcare is something that really, really matters. Me and my team get a real kick out of promoting health literacy more so than we would in other domains.
And also there’s a real need for it. The pandemic has really highlighted the importance of having a high quality medical system, one that is well understood and easy to navigate. The need has always been there, but recognition of that need has really crystalised over the last 18 months.
An area in which London Agency has worked substantially since 2013 is raising awareness of the importance of pathology in healthcare. Because it all happens in labs we seldom see it but 70% of medical decisions rely on pathology results. It’s the engine room of healthcare. You might be surprised to know that Australia has got the best pathology services in the world. And when you have pandemics like we’ve seen, Australia’s testing response has been streets ahead of anywhere else in the world. We might look to the Northern Hemisphere for vaccines, but the rest of the world looks to us on how to do testing.
Hypothetically, if you were put in charge of Australia’s communication strategy in regards to the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, what sorts of strategies or techniques would you draw upon?
Some countries have done it really well. In the UK, for right or wrong, health services know that most people are sceptical around politicians, so instead they’ve been using celebrities to promote vaccinations. That’s not unusual, but they’ve also recognised that COVID-19 vaccination is a nerve wracking area for many people so they’ve been using humour to normalise vaccines, make it less frightening, more memorable and to encourage conversations. There’s a great advert, with Elton John and Michael Caine.
There’s a French campaign which is absolutely superb. It’s all in French, but what’s beautiful about that is that you don’t have to speak a word of French to understand why we’re doing it, what’s at stake. Suddenly it’s not about me and my personal preference to have one vaccine over another, or possibly any vaccine at all. They’ve framed the message as ‘we all want our lives back to normal and this is how we can get that’.
The facts and data about vaccines are of course important but they tend not to move someone out of their position if they’ve already got a particular view, so you need to find emotional ties or other ways to make your argument in order to convince them.
I think using humour is disarming and a good way to do that as well. I’d like to see more of that in Australia.
Is there a campaign you’ve worked on that has particularly stuck with you or been especially interesting?
In March 2020, as COVID lockdown measures rolled out across the country, participation in non COVID-19 healthcare fell off a cliff. Routine healthcare tests and consultations dropped by 40 per cent within a week. Those missed consultations and checks could be the difference between detecting a cancer early and finding it when it’s too late.
Suddenly, irrespective of what’s been happening with the pandemic, the unintended consequences from lockdown is something that could potentially have a far greater impact on Australian health than COVID-19.
We have visibility on pathology data and the number of people presenting for health tests. Pathology is the gateway to most healthcare, so it paints the picture of what’s happening in participation in general. For us that was really the canary in the coalmine. What me and my team were able to do was in the space of ten days we reached out to a wide variety of healthcare stakeholders saying that we’ve got to do something. And from that we created the Continuity of Care Collaboration which is all about encouraging Australians to participate in healthcare during the pandemic.
We did a very intense earned media campaign, social media campaign, a lot of participation from the government and so on, with that whole message of when it comes to your healthcare “Don’t Wait Mate”, get it done. What I was really delighted to see when we look at that data, is you can see the drop in March, and then in the coming months you could see that recovery as well as the message got through and people started returning to their doctor. It was great to see!