Why label healthcare PR as unethical?

I have been working in the field of public relations for past 11 years. Every few months, a journalist or two is seen ranting about their unpleasant experience with some or the other PR consultancy/executive. And, they use the power of pen to grossly generalise this experience to caution their fellow colleagues and advise against engaging with PR firms. In this age of digitisation, it is very easy for anyone to package their opinion insensitively and share it for mass consumption. Within a few hours, such content goes viral and an entire community is put to shame owing to a single or some unfortunate experiences. But, is such mass disgrace really justified?

Very recently I read an article on Muck Rack, which talks about how PR consultancies might be driving healthcare reporting. The article raises questions on how should healthcare PR be categorised or received by media, because code of medical ethics restrict doctors from indulging in any act of self-aggrandisement through direct advertising. The article carries the detailed pitch mail that was shared by a PR executive with the journalist, which I truly believe was not necessary to share, just to make a point. Now, my question is – are we discussing incompetency of the PR firm in making the pitch or accusing doctors and hospitals for choosing the PR route to reach prospective patients?

Healthcare is a fairly well defined and important beat for any mainline and financial newspaper. News around healthcare policies, government initiatives, seasonal diseases, medical advancements and human stories of hope are commonly spotted on city pages every day. Any news story is considered credible when it quotes data, statistics and industry experts and in this case, doctors become an authority, who can share their opinion based on skills and years of experience. Then, why should healthcare PR be singled out or considered unethical? If any doctor accomplishes something path breaking or wishes to share his/her expert advice on a topical theme without misleading masses, why is he/she or his/her representative’s (corporate communications team or PR team) credibility or integrity questioned in public view? How else would the medical fraternity showcase its achievements? Achievements which can give hope and means to many such patients suffering from a similar concern.

I agree that at times, PR teams fail to identify the right journalist or strike a meaningful conversation or pitch effectively. But, isn’t it human to err, especially in today’s fast-paced work scenario. On multiple occasions, PR firms cut a sorry figure in front of their clients because of media’s unprofessional attitude and glaring factual errors in reporting. If we stick to the healthcare conversation, one commonly spots advertorials (paid editorial articles) being accepted and printed by all leading newspapers without any question or consideration of ethics, where the content is completely controlled like an advertisement. Isn’t it in clear contradiction to the question being raised on lawfulness of healthcare PR? Prevailing trust deficit between a patient and a doctor is fuelled by rampant media trials which recently brought down the reputation of many leading doctors and respectable private hospitals.

Reputation management is an extremely crucial aspect of marketing and communications and organisations invest years of effort in building a brand. Media has the power of building or tarnishing reputations and journalists should be considerate of the impact they create with every word they publish online, offline and on their social channels. After all, media is the fourth estate.

I did some research and realised that many doctors are actually debating this code of ethics and have requested the medical counsel to legalise healthcare advertising like any other sector. Personally, I see no harm in it. Being a skill-based profession, doctors should have the liberty to advertise their expertise and milestones to solicit patients without misinforming anyone. In this age of consumerism why should healthcare be treated any differently, what do you think? Do share your thoughts.

The views expressed here are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect that of Reputation Today.

Garima Sharma Nijhawan
Principal Consultant at Archetype
Garima Sharma Nijhawan, Principal Consultant at Archetype
Garima is a Principal Consultant with Archetype (erstwhile Text100) and has over a decade experience in public relations. She has worked across industries including consumer electronics, FMCG, hospitality, e-commerce and healthcare, among others. Her brief stint with a public policy think tank deepened her understanding and interest in advocacy and public affairs.
She blogs for Momspresso and has keen interest in education and academics. She is a guest Assistant Professor at Delhi School of journalism and is also pursuing her PhD.

1 Comment on "Why label healthcare PR as unethical?"

  1. Pr-media-clients, it flows both(three) ways! So in such a scenario, we can’t take a moral high ground here. End of the day, it’s human nature to be opinionated, else indulge in herd mentality!

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