Duncan Cantor, Boehringer Ingelheim, tells us how he got into PR and the challenges of working in the health sector

Duncan Cantor, director of communications at Boehringer Ingelheim, enjoys a challenge and likes to find solutions, but just before I spoke to him he found himself in a situation beyond his control – a pile up on the M4 that meant his usual 20-minute drive to work took him three hours. However, rather than dwell on his nightmare journey, Cantor is upbeat and looking forward to a day that has to continue better than it started.

Being positive is natural to Cantor, as is taking risks, albeit in a controlled way, with every eventuality planned for. Even in his spare time he likes to be safe in a dangerous environment – since he was 14, his favourite hobby has been rock climbing, and he has an ice-climbing trip planned in Scotland in January. Being an adrenaline junkie (or has his wife would say “being foolhardy”) it is not surprising that Cantor’s earliest ambitions as a boy were either to be a fireman or a stuntman. However, as well as fighting fires, politics have also always interested Cantor, and it was politics that he chose to study at university in London. A degree that Cantor says: “qualified me to do nothing.”

Before graduating, Cantor researched many career options, from the extremes of management consultancy to politics, but found that PR was the one that most appealed. Cantor says: “I liked the idea of being an advocate for a company, using skills of persuasion and argument to help develop and build up the business.”

Although he didn’t land a PR job straight away, Cantor studied for a master’s degree in PR while working at healthcare firm BUPA in a sales role. His manager spotted one of his PR textbooks on his desk and suggested to Cantor that he try a spell working with BUPA’s PR team in London, which led to him being recruited to work as a public policy analyst. After five years at BUPA, the next career move was a political one, working first for a think tank and then as a chief of staff for Jeremy Hunt MP. Cantor points out the same skills of persuasion and advocacy are key whether working in public affairs or general public relations.

Next came two years working as senior public affairs director at banking and insurance company HBOS during a tricky period in its history. On the positive side Cantor got to use all his crisis-management skills, as he says: “When you have the skills to deal with hard times, it is disappointing if you never get to use them. There is some excitement in dealing with difficult situations.” Such excitement, is not sustainable for the long term, but Cantor likes to work for a business that throws up challenges.

The pharmaceutical field, in which he is now immersed, has plenty of issues to keep Cantor engrossed. He joined family-owned pharmaceutical firm Boehringer Inghelheim five years ago, and for the last two has been director of communications. Discussing why he finds the health sector so stimulating, Cantor describes some of the pressures, for instance, the financial demands: “We are often seen as a cost to the NHS, not an investment, so we need to prove how we can act as a partner to the health service.” Also the rules in regulations that govern in the pharmaceutical industry and how it markets itself, are rightly, “hugely detailed”. Last, but by no means least, Cantor describes that his business cannot communicate direct to its consumers, but has to talk to the providers, those who prescribe the medicines.

One advantage for health communicators is that society is obsessed with health. Cantor says: “The reason we have so many medical experts on television and writing in medical columns in the press is because health is intensely personal.” Working for Boehringer Inghelheim, Cantor also has another advantage, and that is the reputation of a firm that is 127 years old and is part of the “very fabric” of healthcare.

As much as he loves PR, Cantor does have some bugbears, for example he thinks that all PR disciplines, from internal communications to public affairs should be better integrated into one “communications” strategy. Another thing that can irritate him is when PR folk get obsessed with proving the worth of what they do, rather than focus on business aims: “Arguments in our industry tend to focus on measurement and reputation of what PR does. One of the first questions I was asked when I joined here was ‘how can we sell what we do to the company?’” Cantor stresses that PR can easily sell what it does by doing a good job that meets clear business goals: “It’s all about focusing on the business needs. The more we focus on that the better we will be.”

The last piece of advice that Cantor offers is to learn to say “no”. He explains: “Business leaders often expect all problems to be solved by a communications strategy, but not all problems are communications problems, some may be down to operational issues for example. It is important that PR people don’t try to solve problems that aren‘t theirs to solve. Sometimes you have to say ‘no’.”

Duncan Cantor, director of communications at Boehringer Ingelheim