The art of conversation and the elevation of health in society
An interesting thing happened during this awful pandemic.
We began talking to each other again. Actually, talking to each other. And the topic of course was COVID-19.
When the vaccines became available, conversations around science, health and efficacy increased. Of course, utilizing social and digital platforms to seek and find information was critical in our quest for answers, but they were used to complement not substitute for discussion, dialogue and debate. The key attribute we learned in rediscovering personal connectivity is context. What we are experiencing today is the resurgence of science in our lives based on conversation and context.
Healthcare companies – especially pharma companies – have often communicated above and around consumers thinking that other stakeholders carried more import or influence. But COVID-19 leveled the playing field so to speak, uncovering the power of consumer engagement and empowerment. Instead of social and digital technology becoming a crutch for companies, they became a means to an end – a conversation.
Now, it’s about information being ubiquitous and citizen journalism rampant. People’s appetite for more is growing – for context, rationale, meaning, purpose. They want a peek behind the curtain to comprehend the “how” and “why” companies took certain actions, made certain choices, and operated in a manner that was appropriate.
In Science, Context Matters
Context can be seen everywhere. Reality TV is a direct by-product of society’s increasing appetite to comprehend and experience the real dimensions of life, not the ideal placed on us. It’s the same inside organizations. Employees want to be involved with and aware of the choices that leadership is wrestling with or the options that lead to a key decision. Not just the decision itself, but the information and choices that inform it.
In science, context is multi-faceted. It speaks to breadth and depth. It relates to both thinking and emotion. It establishes a point in time and points of reference. Context strengthens arguments and disarms criticism.
It used to be common practice for public communications to be viewed in a vacuum – going from announcement to announcement, and from action to action, without necessarily thinking or worrying much about explaining the interconnectivity. Today, information on the internet lives forever. As a corporate spokesperson, you need to put your opinions, actions and decisions in perspective to mitigate negative or inaccurate interpretations later. You need to “put the past in context with the present and put the present in context with the future.”
Being an “Insider”
More importantly, context allows for consumers, patients, customers and employees alike to be “insiders” about the organization’s mission, purpose, aspirations, challenges, politics and, in the case of COVID-19, treatment. In so doing, companies can turn adversaries into advocates while gaining new perspectives and insights to inform decision-making. Being an insider is probably the most important benefit an employee strives for today.
Similarly, from a customer perspective, context reinforces benefit of the doubt, while lack of context generates doubt. Context helps pre-empt crises, lack of context fuels crises. Context helps tell a logical, cohesive story about a company’s choices and direction; lack of context paints a picture of a rudderless, leaderless organization.
For all these reasons, the melding factions of language and intent – context – is central to a company’s ability to engage. Decisions are no longer “one and done,” particularly in the age of the internet. The social nature of the internet means that dialogue around your company continues in perpetuity, and few are shy about referencing your seemingly innocuous comments from three years ago to support their argument – comments that can potentially support either side if they lack context. In a world in which people turn to a variety of sources for information – friends, employees, media, bloggers, politicians – context is what enables you to influence how that information gets presented and interpreted.
This can sound academic on the surface, but the implications are practical if not critical. More than ever, it’s crucial that your past actions be brought together with your decision-making – to form a complete picture.
Context, in the end, is as much about substance as it is about intent. Bringing details, nuance and connectivity to communications, context widens the aperture and broadens the argument.
A Test for Healthcare Leaders and Communications
Context puts even more pressure on leaders, who may be stronger pure communicators than their forebearers, but who may not be used to connecting the dots between past, current and anticipated future actions. It also puts more pressure on communicators, who more than ever need to understand potentially foreign topics – clinical trials, manufacturing, purchasing, regulations – to be more conversant about the big picture, and to offer better counsel to senior leadership.
Ultimately, everyone involved must be adept at nimbly offering insight and rationale. Business pages and magazines are filled with any number of organizations that have recently done or not done an adequate job at this.
Context and Storytelling in Science
For science-based organizations, an unspoken element to this point has been the relationship between creating context and storytelling. Establishing context is comparable to telling the ongoing story of your endeavor – conveying all its successes and failures in a manner that makes sense based on past events and future expectations.
Accomplishing this requires several considerations:
- Recognizing that consumers are the primary stakeholder and influencer in the war on disease and a healthy lifestyle.
- Providing information and data with empathy and emotion.
- Orchestrating communications from content to context to dissemination to result in dialogue, discussion and debate or conversation.
- Understanding that social and digital should complement not substitute engagement.
- Giving communicators full access to information and senior management; they can’t provide context without that.
- Recognizing that “top down” communications by fiat is no longer beneficial. Today’s successful organizations communicate on a horizontal axis, drawing on numerous voices and numerous communication platforms.
- Staying current and telling your story in ways large and small. Creating context is an everyday effort, not one that takes place only when there’s a pandemic.
- Being dynamic – relating information to the audience to make it personally meaningful.
- Recognizing the organization no longer controls the narrative. Know your influence ecosystem.
- Employing peripheral vision. Connecting things large and small, in view and out of focus all work in
- Constantly assessing consumers, patients, customers and employees to discern issues, trends, challenges, frustrations, lifestyle habits, etc.
In the healthcare industry, organizational leaders and communicators have a unique ability to accelerate the current positive perceptions of pharma and guide their companies in a manner that helps constituencies connect the dots among actions, decisions and events. This will create a cohesive, consistent context that makes sense and helps establish confidence.
Giving people a sense of being insiders engenders ownership, which leads to trust and engagement. In the end, a public that is inspired and engaged along with a patient, customer and employee base that is motivated and biased toward your work is perhaps the most sustainable competitive advantage one could hope for.