“What should be the goal of public relations programs?” Many communications specialists would say something along the lines of “shaping perceptions of our stakeholders to influence behaviors”. I would argue that there needs to be a shift away from seeking to influence perceptions directly, to seeking to influence conversations.

In today’s integrated, multi-media, fast-paced and global environment, what people think is continuously evolving and driven – in no small part – by the conversations they take part in, observe and initiate. So, to influence stakeholder behavior we need to initiate, be part of and influence these discussions.

The form a conversation takes today is very different from that even 5 years ago. Conversations are happening in multiple media, across multiple countries – not just by the ‘water-cooler’. People’s opinion on something can change in minutes and spread almost instantly around the world.

This speed of change and the need to evolve and react creates challenges for any communications campaign, and particularly programs in the highly regulated pharmaceutical and medical device industries. So, how should our approach to public relations adapt and seek to deliver on the goal of changing conversations?

1. Who should we talk to? Look beyond traditional influencers (journalist, KOLs, patient groups), also consider peer-to-peer influencers and keep track of their degree of influence and on whom.

2. What are they already talking about? Understand the conversations and how they are framed.

3. How should we reach them? Medical congresses are a traditional example of maximizing audience reach and impact − the concentration of influencers, target stakeholders and the focus of interest around a disease area. Digital and social media experts already build on this principle by identifying and going to websites where communities already convene.

4. What should we say? Messages used to be about context, differentiation and audience relevance. The focus now needs to be around stickiness (the ability to start, spread or add to a conversation) and individualization (both one-to-many and one-to-one targeting).

5. How should we say it? Digital and social media is about saying more with less –Tweeting, texting, posting, YouTube videos – are now the preferred medium of communication.

6. How do we know if they are listening? Share of news should now be share of conversation. Traditionally around 80−90% of news content was driven by press releases, how much of social media is driven by them or is that now the wrong metric?

Sam Barnes