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Why we need more healthcare PROs, by Avril Lee, partner and deputy CEO of Ketchum Pleon London

Healthcare PR is facing such a shortage of talent that it risks holding back the industry and is already making maintaining consistent client service an increasing concern. For those of us who can remember the 1990s and the last recession, this is not news; a lack of good people has always been the lament.

Then, as now, healthcare PR wasn’t front of mind with those seeking creative careers, and the science graduates looking to bring their degrees to life didn’t know health PR existed. Things have improved, but healthcare is still perceived by some as uninspiring with regulations taming, rather than building, the creative challenge. The pharmaceutical sector’s image as ‘bad pharma’ has also done little to help attract new people at a time when it’s important to employees that their jobs have a positive social impact.

Healthcare PR’s largely female workforce (far more than say our corporate groups) has delivered great work from an army of strategic multi-taskers, but it has also led to a loss of key talent when babies and family life beckons. And whatever your thoughts are on equality, it is often the woman who decides to work part time or leave work to meet family commitments.

Another seismic shift in healthcare, and PR generally, is the rise of the freelance culture. Fantastic for the individual, helping get the work/life balance right, and for teams that need short- to mid-term support but, as the talent shortage hits, increasingly companies are having to hire freelancers to lead client business long term, leaving the teams open to frequent changes.

So what is critical to change this recruitment predicament?

We need to challenge ourselves to make our recruitment broader and our thinking wider to find new sources of talent. We’ve started, but can we honestly say this is the norm? The industry needs to open up to new types of people from different backgrounds with varied educational paths and skill sets. Shouldn’t we be hiring science teachers? Lab technicians? More people with inner-city accents? As well as identifying people new to PR we also need to support them with fast-track learning and intensive PR up-skilling – and use these same systems to bring on our existing staff faster.

As part of this we need to PR ourselves more – improving awareness of PR industry career opportunities in the wider community. Although rather altruistic at this stage, as the benefits will take time, without industry leaders doing this we will constantly struggle to improve recruitment. We need to make a full commitment to being champions of our own cause – it’s started but we need more. At Ketchum Pleon we’re active with university visits, career talks, ongoing internship opportunities and a graduate scheme, to which we are considering adding healthcare-only placements.

And, of course, as well as finding new people we should protect and retain the talent in our midsts. A fresh look at working practices needs to address the pressures of working in a demanding, client-centred business. We need life-friendly approaches that allow flexible working hours, enable more home working, provide ways to balance life and work and create environments that are inspiring and supportive for both the young graduate in their first job and the seasoned senior with outside commitments. Flexibility for all types of living is needed – we have a large number of people who work part-time and they are not all parents, but they do all want to enjoy their job and their lives. We’re also designing roles to fit both client needs and personal interests; allowing people to play to their strengths (a specialist passion or working cross-practice for example) and focus on what they enjoy doing.

These are challenges for the whole PR business, but with healthcare feeling the strain now, the need for change is urgent.

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