When’s the Right Time to Hire a PR Pro?

jimweinrebe.jpgJim Weinrebe has been doing healthcare PR and marketing for over 20 years. In his current role as senior vice president at Schwartz Communications, Weinrebe works with a variety of medical device, e-health and healthcare IT clients. To name just a few, Boston-based Schwartz has as clients Caliper Life Sciences, iCAD, NeuroMetrix and NxStage Medical. Med Tech Sentinel recently chatted with Weinrebe about how small companies can garner media coverage, navigate regulatory and reimbursement challenges, and know when to stop doing their own PR.

Unless you’re one of the big boys, like Boston Scientific or Medtronic, it’s sometimes hard to get media attention. What kinds of things do reporters and editors look for when deciding to cover a smaller medical technology company?
The notion that it is difficult for a small medical technology company to get media attention is false. Certain business media may cover large companies due to their market cap or sales, but that it is a tiny sliver of the journalism universe. Reporters and editors are looking for interesting, compelling stories that have human interest and relevance, and which will give their outlet a distinctive voice vis a vis the competition. Some of the most exciting and innovative medical device technologies are introduced by start-ups and emerging companies. In fact, I would say that the emerging company accounts for the majority of these innovations. Reporters and editors are looking for stories that have innovation and broad relevance. And regardless of the complexity of the underlying science, they want to be able to humanize these stories through the voices of patients and credible scientists or clinicians. Obviously, reporters are always looking for important breaking news, but these milestones are few and far between when one tracks the lengthy course of product development whether it is with medical devices or biopharmaceuticals. The true test for a PR firm is its ability to craft interesting stories that can grab a journalist’s attention in the absence of breaking news.

Read on for full interview.

In a constantly changing regulatory environment, what’s the biggest communications challenge being faced today by small medical technology firms? How is that different from what these companies were facing, say, 10 years ago?
For small and large medical technology companies alike, the regulatory environment has become far more challenging in the realm of communications. Device marketing is now receiving the same degree of regulatory scrutiny that has been given to pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies. One of the reasons for this is that direct-to-consumer and mainstream promotion of medical device therapies and diagnostics has become far more prominent than before. For both acute and chronic conditions, the continuing evolution of minimally invasive devices as alternatives to surgery or drug therapy has strongly contributed to this situation. And as more and more people are living their lives with stents and any number of permanently implanted devices, dialogue about long-term safety is becoming far more prevalent at a time when the regulatory authorities themselves are being examined with much greater scrutiny. On a different front, medical technology companies are under tremendous pressure to communicate the clinical and economic value of their devices. Device companies cannot adopt the “if we build it they will come” mentality. This is especially true for young, single-product companies.

At what stage of development should a small medical technology company hire a public relations firm?
There is no single answer to this question. A pre-commercialization stage medical device company could engage a PR firm to help attract investors, position its proprietary science, pave the way for a public offering or recruit patients into clinical trials. At the very least, a device company in Phase III trials should engage a PR firm at least one year prior to expected regulatory clearance and market entry. Depending on the therapeutic category there could be significant ramp-up work, including cultivation of media spokespeople, message and materials development, alliance-building with professional societies and advocacy groups, launch planning, promoting data publication/presentation activity and early stage technology briefings with top-tier reporters. In the very early stages, small device companies that recognize the importance of PR often try to handle it internally, which is not necessarily a bad thing, depending on the available capacity to do the work. Even if there isn’t the scope of work to justify investing in a robust PR program, early stage device companies should still consider engaging PR experts on a consultative or project basis because many of the positive PR outcomes ultimately derive from a sound investment in planning, strategy and message development.

When you start working with a small medical device company, what things do they tend to need the most help with from a communications standpoint? 
Depending on whether the small device company employs any PR staff and how many different hats that person may wear, these needs can really vary extensively. Some early stage companies want to be in a “stealth” mode for certain competitive reasons, in which case there is no need for help with basic PR tasks such as writing press releases, reaching out to the media, creating content for Web sites or other conventional tasks. For companies that want to build strong visible momentum with key stakeholders, help is often most needed with message development, designing PR strategy and executing high level media relations. Some small device companies are led by serial entrepreneurs who have already been through the process of successfully launching companies and may have considerable PR experience and savvy. In other instances, device start-ups are often led by people who have little commercial experience, and who may be passionate about their product or technology to the extent that they lack objectivity in how to articulate it with the media. In circumstances such as these, media and presentation training are very important.

For small companies that aren’t quite ready to hire a PR firm, if you had to offer one piece of communications advice, what would it be?
I would advise them to prepare for an environment in which clinical and economic value must be demonstrated in order to obtain sufficient reimbursement, and to heavily factor that into both short- and long-term communications planning. Technology innovation is simply not enough. Being a better or less invasive therapy is not enough. We have seen too many exciting medical technologies and companies fail or stagnate simply because they did not sufficiently invest in what was needed to amass the evidence to justify reimbursement and to then persuasively communicate that rationale to private and public payers.

The comments are closed.