Successful Health and Medicine Communication in Earned, Owned, and Social Media: A Case Study

    successful-health-and-medical-communicationThis article was written by Bill Ostrem, PhD, and is based on content presented by Abbie Miller, MWC, at the AMWA Medical Writing & Communication Conference. Additional session reports are available in the AMWA Journal.

    Today's communication and media landscape offers medical writers a multitude of venues or "channels" for their writing. How do you as a medical writer choose an appropriate channel for a given purpose? And how do you tailor your message for that channel? These were just some of the questions addressed by Abbie Miller, MWC, in a presentation at the 2023 AMWA Medical Writing & Communication Annual Conference. In it, she provided a case study of her team’s "omni-channel" content strategy for publicizing a new gene therapy for Duchenne's muscular dystrophy (DMD) at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.

    Types of Media Channels

    Miller described three categories for media channels: earned media, owned media, and social media.

    • Earned media are owned and controlled by other organizations and individuals. This includes television news, newspapers, magazines, radio, and podcasts. Any time or space you use in these media, including any invitation to a particular channel, must be earned in a competitive environment.
    • Owned media are those channels controlled by you or your organization. These can include websites, blogs, reports, brochures, flyers, magazines, videos, and podcasts.
    • Social media needs the least explanation. Think here of posts on the major social media platforms: YouTube, Instagram, X, Facebook, TikTok, and LinkedIn, for example.

    Choosing a Channel

    For Miller, the choice of what media channel to use depends on your answers to several important questions: 

    • Who am I trying to reach?
    • What am I trying to say?
    • Where do they prefer to get their information?
    • Why do they need to know?

    In the case of the new DMD gene therapy, Miller needed to reach several different audiences: physicians, researchers, employees, patients, families, and the general public. Each audience needed a message tailored in a different way for different channels. 

    One key message that Miller wanted to communicate was the legacy of the principal researcher, Dr. Jerry Mendell, who had been working on treatments for DMD and other neuromuscular disorders for decades.

    For the audience of physicians and researchers, getting coverage in respected publications is important for gaining credibility. For Miller's project, an earned article in STAT News communicated the story of Dr. Mendell and the new gene therapy in detail. Hospital newsletters, an example of owned media, reached that same audience locally.

    Physicians and researchers also saw the story on social media, where influencers play a significant role in attracting readers. On LinkedIn, for example, a post from an influential colleague of Dr. Mendell's drew significant attention beyond the hospital-specific audience.

    Miller and her team also wanted to tell families of DMD patients about the new therapy. For this audience, both earned media and social media played an important role. Facebook posts communicated news about the therapy's progress to parents, as did the hospital's blog for parents.

    The general public, meanwhile, learned about the new therapy through an earned article in Time magazine—another important success for Miller and her team.

    The Source of Truth Document

    One owned media document played a key role in Miller's project: a detailed eight-page article in Nationwide Children's own magazine, Pediatrics Nationwide. Miller calls this her "source of truth" document. According to Miller, this crucial document provides "the best version of the story you want to tell." Much longer than a press release, it serves as a background piece that provides history, key concepts, definitions, and illustrations. Creating such a document gives a communications team an opportunity to identify key messages, and it also provides source material for derivative documents.

    Miller's long "source of truth" article, titled "Micro-dystrophin: A Small Gene with Big Promise," tells the story of Dr. Mendell's persistent efforts to develop a gene therapy for DMD. Addressed to a science audience, it provides specifics on this virus-mediated gene-replacement therapy. It also details the contributions of Mendell's research partner, describes setbacks that the research team encountered, and recounts each of the therapy's clinical trials. 

    Nationwide Children's published the article before the FDA approved the gene therapy. After the accelerated approval on June 22, 2023, Miller added a prefatory note describing the therapy's newly approved status.

    Maximizing Visual Impact

    Strong visuals are another vital aspect to a communication strategy, of course, and most media channels will require visuals of some sort. "Visuals grab and hold people's attention," according to Miller, and they support understanding of complex messages.

    For Miller's project, the use of a medical illustrator was vital. She recommends LinkedIn as a good source for finding illustrators. 

    Miller and her team made video an essential part of their communication plan. They traveled to Chicago and West Virginia to make a video featuring two boys who received the therapy, and they eventually posted the video to YouTube.

    Miller made a case for animation as a useful tool for explaining complex scientific topics. In the DMD gene therapy project, an animation showed how the therapy works inside the body. This required careful storyboarding to make the best use of the animator's time.

    For social media graphics, Miller and team used Canva. The website enabled them to use templates and to quickly develop graphics for Instagram and other sites.

    The Importance of Plain Language

    Miller strongly emphasized the importance of plain language in any communication effort. “No matter who your audience is or what channel you select, plain language is essential," Miller said. 

    This includes communication with highly educated physicians and researchers, many of whom may be reading messages when they are fatigued. At such times, "literacy and comprehension skills decrease," according to Miller. "People who are tired and stressed also appreciate plain language."

    Consider your audience, and use the simplest words possible, Miller emphasized. Concise sentences written in an active voice will ensure that your message is understood.

    A Portrait of Success

    In the end, Miller's case study described a highly successful communication project that made use of many different media channels for many different audiences. Her team's efforts publicizing the new muscular dystrophy gene therapy resulted in an "earned media" reach of 83 million people, including the coverage in STAT News and Time magazine and a cover story on the Columbus biotechnology scene in Business Insider. The project also won major speaking invitations for Dr. Mendell, and it led to successful outreach in many other channels.

    With careful planning and application of the right strategy for each channel, Miller emphasized, any medical writing team can achieve similar results.


    March 25, 2024 at 9:00 AM

    American Medical Writers Association

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