iQ Interview Series: Marie Kennedy on Health Care Communications in the New Normal

May 20, 2020
By iQ Staff
iQ Interview Series with Marie Kennedy.

iQ 360’s Interview Series asks leaders in our network to share their experiences, expertise and insights on the future of communications.  

Senior communications consultant Marie Kennedy has steered corporate communications for health care, biotech and life sciences companies, including Dignity Health, Baxter International, Amgen and Genentech, and led Edelman’s corporate practice in Los Angeles. Below, she shares her thoughts on communicating during a pandemic and what corporate communicators should prioritize in order to reach their stakeholders effectively.  


What is the No. 1 issue that health care communicators should be concerned with in the midst of a pandemic?

Authenticity and transparency are top priorities for health care communicators. According to Edelman’s Trust Barometer, the role of the CEO as a trusted advisor has fallen. This is a critical issue for health care company CEOs, who need to be a top trusted source of information right now.

In this pandemic, misinformation is literally costing people their lives. Companies have a huge responsibility to communicate out, and health care companies have the subject matter expertise and access to do so. Be a reliable news source, keeping people informed about the virus and the progress being made in the fight against it. This means both the good and bad news.

I’ve seen my clients’ and colleagues’ CEOs make meaningful strides in their roles at this time as they message against false, and at times, detrimental information to both individuals as well as to the health care system. Taking a bold position requires just the authenticity and transparency needed in the midst of a pandemic.


Given your extensive background in health care communications, what opportunities do you think exist for communicators in the industry right now?

Health care communications professionals need to be strong and ask for the internal and external resources needed to manage through this marathon and permission to set the pace. We need to show up as comprehensive business executives, not just message writers. Enterprise collaboration becomes the number one priority, and since communications is used to working across disciplines, there is no better time to pull leaders together for cross collaboration.

Take a moment to assess your approach mid-crisis and make changes or adjustments as needed. Communicators have a chance to bring attention to the strategic role and value that the function has brought, how it can continue to contribute and add value, and the financial investment needed to deliver.


What value can communications professionals bring to their organizations as we navigate this global health and economic crisis?

This is a teaching and leading moment for communications professionals to help successfully navigate leadership through business continuity. Communications leaders need to work with the leadership team to look at the issues created by this pandemic from all angles.

Ensure that leaders are considering business function, outcomes and impact ahead of what the positioning and messages need to be. The positioning and messaging cannot get ahead of what the business will look like in its new normal. Through communications analytics, the communications team can make sure that constituencies are heard and become part of the leadership's thinking on what lies ahead. Communications professionals are good at pacing organizations and this could not be a better time to think through what re-opening looks and feels like, and what the company can deliver.


How has corporate communications changed over the past decade?

The explosion of digital communications and social media in the last decade has affected the speed at which news moves, the global reach of news stories, and the quality and truthfulness of news. Without a doubt, this has made the most dramatic impact on reputation management, how communications functions organize, and what talent is needed within the profession.

Communication analytical tools have been a game changer for how communications professionals do our jobs. No longer do we have to handle the issue when it has become a full-sized public question of your company’s ethics and behavior. With the power of social listening, we can manage an issue upfront so it does not have to be managed through the media reactively.

Finally, how and where we reach stakeholders are no longer clearly delineated. Outreach requires strong partnerships and coordination of the many components of communications functions — marketing, digital, customer relations, investor relations, advocacy, human resources, government affairs, community relations — that touch the key stakeholder. Having multiple channels through which to communicate quickly is a huge opportunity when done correctly. The trend to decentralize is coming back around to a strongly integrated core communications function.


How do you think COVID-19 has changed and will change the corporate communications function? Do you think these changes will be permanent?

I see three permanent changes for the communications function, assuming it already has a seat at the executive table. One change is that the function will now be fully responsible for the brand. You cannot portray the brand as one entity while operating the response and recovery under a different platform. How a company and its leadership has handled this crisis will forever become part of the brand. While it has been a gray area over the last decade, the necessity of the communications function to span into brand marketing is forever changed.

Second, publishing accurate data — quickly — is now the public service of the company. This has to be resourced with strong writers, content publishers and easy access to subject matter experts. Communicators should staff this resource as a normal part of business operations, whether in-house or with onboarded external resources.

Finally, employee engagement will be a top priority over other communications functions. CEOs and executive leadership must fully understand this — it is a different game now. We have never witnessed a news cycle this long in our careers. Our employees are our greatest ambassadors and can have the most impact on the brand now simply by how they are treated. Employee engagement will be a top communications priority for years to come and executive leaders that prioritize this work rather than place it on the ‘nice to have’ list will come out of this with the strongest brands.


Like this interview? Check out our conversation with PRWeek Hall of Famer John Onoda on the future of PR.