Surekha Ragavan
Mar 17, 2022

Healthcare PR teams are facing a critical talent crunch

Can healthcare comms be sexy? To crack a serious talent shortage, agency leaders are finding creative ways to make the field more attractive for prospective talent—and looking beyond traditional PR to shop for talent.

Clockwise from left: Kaoru Nakagawa, Rikki Jones, Will Collie, Emma Smith
Clockwise from left: Kaoru Nakagawa, Rikki Jones, Will Collie, Emma Smith

PR agencies are not spared in the phenomenon of the ‘Great Resignation’ with high turnover rates and more talent yearning to move in-house. Agency leaders tell Campaign Asia-Pacific that healthcare teams in particular are facing a battle to recruit talent in this time—for multiple reasons.

Will Collie, APAC vice chair of client growth at Edelman, says that talent is the “number one issue” in its healthcare practice and the battle is in finding the right people between agencies and companies who are searching to fill in-house roles. He says he is regularly in conversation with companies who are asking him to help find them talent to join their business, even if they are aware that Edelman is conducting a nearly identical search. This shows that the securing of healthcare talent is highly competitive.

“One approach we are taking is to build cross-regional teams who, regardless of where they are based, work in a focused capacity on a small group of clients, bringing specialty skill sets to the table,” says Collie. “It's helping us to deliver efficient and timely subject-matter expertise, as well as intelligence across the region. Interestingly, some of our new health leaders from across the region have left longstanding in-house positions to join or rejoin the firm, and have been incredibly successful.”

For Rikki Jones, APAC president at GCI Health, the biggest challenge is in the (small) size of the health and medical communications talent pool in the region.

“Worldwide, the demand for strong health and medical communications specialist talent outstrips supply, and it’s long been the case,” says Jones. “Asia is no exception—in fact, the issue is arguably more acute here, as until recently the industry hasn’t been as much of an established niche as it has in other regions.”

The problem is that communications graduates rarely know of health and medical communications as a career option, and life science and medicine graduates don’t know of communications as a path they can pursue. Jones adds there may not be a quick fix, but GCI Health partners with universities to promote health and medical communications as a rewarding career path to students, and she hopes it can be part of an “upstream solution”.

The specialism that healthcare comms requires is part of the reason its talent pool is limited. The same skills aren’t required of say, consumer-driven PR for lifestyle or hospitality brands.

“What constantly remains important to us, beyond the hiring of fresh graduates, is a background in health, medicine, or science. As a specialist agency it’s critical that 100% of our team live and breathe a passion and career dedication to improving patient and healthcare system outcomes,” says Jones.

At Sandpiper, which recently launched a healthcare business, CEO Emma Smith’s focus is on having the right mix of expertise when it comes to talent.

“Given the skills necessary to deliver this, we need to think much more expansively and outside the box about who we hire,” says Smith. “We have found that we often choose candidates whose profiles may not necessarily fit the usual agency mould, but have the right skills, experience and, most importantly, potential to think differently and deliver.”

Kaoru Nakagawa, SVP of healthcare at Weber Shandwick Japan, says that while recruiting has been tougher than ever, the industry has to be open about onboarding talent from disciplines other than traditional PR and healthcare.

“We are hiring talent not just from the healthcare industry, but also from ‘marginal areas’, which means those industries that overlap with or sit close to the healthcare industry,” she says. “But we are not the only ones looking at this new talent pool—interest in these areas is high as everyone is aware that healthcare grew during the pandemic, while other sectors declined."

One way agencies can do this, suggests Nakagawa, is to shift the mindset of healthcare clients (as well as some agency folk) to think about how to raise awareness and boost reputation by genuinely contributing to society beyond providing products and services. If clients and prospective talent can think about their contributions as truly purposeful to society, perhaps the attraction towards healthcare comms could also improve.

“Unfortunately, the business model in the healthcare industry hasn’t yet evolved to be able to grow in ways beyond medicine,” says Nakagawa. “The most attractive talent in these ‘marginal areas’ are those who would like to develop their career in a way that is directly linked to people’s health and wellbeing.”

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