Healthcare Communication: A Rewarding Career Path

Through most of his college career, Michael DiSalvo was planning to be an English teacher. Even into his junior year, he was working toward a degree in English. But when he felt the need to do something more creative, he began to explore the field of public relations and decided to switch gears.

From that point, things moved quickly for DiSalvo. He graduated from COM in 2009 and worked for a small PR firm in Boston before landing a job at the prestigious Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide in New York City. It hasn’t taken long for him to begin making a name for himself. In his short time at Ogilvy, DiSalvo has earned the position of Account Executive and received a nomination for the distinguished PRWeek Young PR Professional of the Year Award.

DiSalvo’s focus lies in healthcare and pharmaceuticals. This area of public relations must focus on differentiating between branded and unbranded campaigns. Branded campaigns, the more traditional of the two, include the product name, indications and attributes. Unbranded campaigns take a different approach. Rather than market a specific product, they promote awareness and information about a certain condition or symptoms that consumers may not know exist.

But healthcare marketing and promotion come with a specific set of obstacles.

“There are definitely a lot of challenges, but it’s fun to work on because we can come up with creative solutions,” DiSalvo said.

All promotional material for healthcare and pharmaceutical companies must be approved by the Food and Drug Administration, so there can be none of the bold claims seen in general consumer advertisements. These campaigns must walk a tightrope between making sure they do not overpromise and keeping consumers from believing they have a condition that they do not.

“It’s a fine line,” DiSalvo said. “You don’t want to scare people, and it sounds weird, but you also don’t want to give them excess hope, so you have to be very cautious.”

For this reason, pharmaceutical companies are wary of entering into the social media craze. Social media has created a wealth of new opportunities for marketers, but there are significant risks for those in the healthcare industry. For example, if a consumer wrote on a company’s Facebook about a side effect her or she experienced while taking a certain drug, the company would be legally obligated to report the adverse effect described in the post.

But DiSalvo has had success implementing a social media-driven campaign for at least one client. The unbranded nature of the campaign made it less risky. It revolved around Twitter and a celebrity spokesperson. Because it was the first platform of its kind for the company, DiSalvo and his team were able to create a social media guideline document for the company and to launch an internal blog.

“It was uncharted water, so it was a huge deal,” DiSalvo said. “It’s hard to navigate the challenges versus the potential successes, but it is also really fun and really rewarding.

One of the greatest advantages to working in healthcare PR is that the budgets are bigger. You can work on a lot of interesting components and projects, and the information is really helping people. It’s like an immediate personal return on investment.”

When DiSalvo moved to New York City a few months after graduation, he set out on a whirlwind of interviews. He felt confident after each one—except for Ogilvy.

“I was cracking jokes left and right with my interviewers,” he said. “I walked out of there thinking it was way too much fun. I’d never get a call.”

He later found out that it was because he was so at ease that he was offered the position. It was then that he realized they were interviewing him more to see if he would fit into the culture of the company, not for his skill set. DiSalvo has been going strong at Ogilvy ever since. Each year, every agency nominates one employee that it thinks would be a strong and relevant candidate for the PR Week Young PR Professional of the Year award. DiSalvo was blown away when his manager told him that Ogilvy had selected him for the honor.

“They developed a 12-page entry for me,” he said. “It was incredibly flattering. I didn’t think I was that interesting.”

But PR Week saw something special in DiSalvo as well. It chose him as one of five finalists, and the only one who had been in the industry less than a year. The agency posted news of the nomination around the office and invited not only DiSalvo but also his closest coworkers to the awards ceremony, an honor usually reserved for senior-level management.

DiSalvo credits several of his BU classes with preparing him for the workplace. He specifically noted Stephen Quigley’s corporate communication course, Edward Downes’ media relations class, Veronica Ellis’ demanding writing course and Jo O’Connor’s class on oral presentation.

“You don’t realize how much you present,” he said. “You’re presenting every day, whether it’s to one person or to 30.”

There are still some elements that are difficult to teach in a classroom, though, and DiSalvo had a piece of advice for BU students. College students have grown up in a world where email is casual and informal, but once they enter the work force, they will be expected to write professional and eloquent emails. The writing skills they learn in class should be applied to this realm of communication. DiSalvo also encourages students to keep an open mind when looking for jobs.

“You might not land your dream job right out of college. Most people don’t,” he said. “But as long as you find a job you love, then you’re on your way.”

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