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What three qualities are most important in a successful leader in healthcare communications?

Posted: January 12, 2012 - 8:53 PM ET - by Elisabeth

Today’s blog post is a reprint from Communiqué. Last year the magazine posed the question, “What three qualities are most important in a successful leader in healthcare communications?” I shared my thoughts on a balanced approach to leadership, and I think it applies to many industries:

While all successful leaders need qualities that engender trust and respect – integrity, sense of purpose, vision, experience and confidence – leaders in today’s healthcare environment may be more successful by achieving a balance in three key areas: determination and flexibility; practicality and idealism; and expertise and a willingness to continue learning.

Determination and flexibility

Determination to lead an individual or a group toward a goal in the face of challenge, criticism or any number of unforeseen events should be balanced with the flexibility necessary to “pivot and turn” when a plan or goal needs to be adapted.  For example, today’s crossroads of media and technology have revolutionized the pace of communication, requiring industry leaders to think quickly, navigate skillfully and communicate effectively with their organizations’ stakeholders.

Expertise and a willingness to continue learning

The previously mentioned advances in social media and information technology have spurred rapid and dramatic change, inspiring breakthroughs in health and medicine and transforming the way information is delivered and exchanged.  Leaders in healthcare communications must understand these new resources and processes in order to assess their effects.  Experience is invaluable, but it can generate bias.  A successful leader needs to be open to new ideas and approaches.

Practicality and idealism

“There must be a better way to do this,” is a popular sentiment among leaders.  That thought stems from the practical experience of having created or done whatever “this” is and the idealism that inspires and drives a vision.  The most successful leaders – in our industry and outside of it – seem to derive this balance from an understanding of their stakeholders’ needs and expectations.

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From doubt to determination

Posted: June 2, 2011 - 5:32 PM ET - by Elisabeth

The other day Joe Biden asked me, “Why do we doubt our capacity?”

Well, not just me …

but it’s a question I can relate to.

Entrepreneurs know doubt … and how to plow right through it to whatever is on the other side: anything in the spectrum from triumph to disaster. Anyone who knows me well will tell you that I’m pretty open about voicing my doubts. I guess it’s how I avoid letting them turn into fear; it’s my version of peeking under the bed to face what scares me.

What never ceases to amaze me is the amount of support and reassurance I find once I do voice my doubts. Friends and colleagues get it; everyone feels vulnerable and apprehensive sometimes. Speaking up gives me an opportunity to find answers and reassurance.

Despite what you might be thinking, Joe wasn’t asking because of his doubts. While the Vice President’s every gaffe has been highlighted by the media, you wouldn’t have known it from his confident delivery of an impressively articulate and heartfelt speech. He addressed a group gathered at the One Mind for Research forum in Boston on the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s famous “moonshot” speech. Biden compared the national urgency of landing a man on the moon to our current need to advance our understanding of cognitive and brain disorders. His words about the vision, leadership and resolve required to do so were stirring.

Members of the audience certainly knew doubt and fear – men and women who face mental illness and the uncertainty of treatment, physicians and scientists who work to weigh the risks and benefits of  treatments, and soldiers who struggle to readjust to the life of freedom they have provided for the rest of us. These scientists, patient advocates and politicians shared their knowledge in an effort to abolish the stigma of illnesses which marginalize men and women, to unravel the workings of the body’s most complex organ, and to support servicemen and women who return from war with unseen wounds.

The collective dedication to finding answers overwhelmed everyone’s doubts.

I admit well-crafted political rhetoric makes me want to find the nearest flag and wave it, but after the stories of personal triumphs and scientific breakthroughs, Biden’s talk of promises, potential and possibilities made me forget my doubts and remember why I really love what we do at Ritz Communications. We communicate critical health information to people who need it.

I can’t count the number of business seminars I’ve sat through thinking about the company’s mission and vision and “big audacious hairy goals,” but the commitment and enthusiasm at the forum was like a great big reminder waving right in front of me. We communicate critical health information to people who need it – to patients looking for a diagnosis or treatment, to doctors looking for medical data and advancements, to caregivers looking for information and support. We don’t even have to do the hard part with scientific equations and lab rats. We get to use language and communications tools that change and improve daily. We get to make people’s lives better every day that we work hard enough … every day that we contribute to a cause larger than ourselves.

I’ve heard over and over again as I’ve built the agency, “don’t get so caught up working in the business that you don’t have time to work on the business.” Yet all it took was a couple of days of diving back in to remind me what all of the doubting is for … and no-doubt worth.

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The opposite of halo

Posted: May 19, 2011 - 10:56 PM ET - by Elisabeth

If we’re judged by the company we keep, we’re proud to have our colleague Abbe Kalina sharing her thoughts on endorsements on AIRtime this week.

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Our society is ultra focused on celebrities. We look to them for direction on just about everything, from water to clothing and cars, to tell us what we need and shouldn’t live without.

Who hasn’t bought shoes that LeBron James says are great for shooting hoops or skin care products because they promise to make us look every bit as fresh as Katy Perry?

Advertisers count on this popularity and leverage it to sell products. The theory goes that there is a halo effect and that the positive thoughts and feelings that consumers have towards a celebrity will be transferred to the product they are backing.

This is great for celebrities. They typically get paid handsomely, and their participation serves as a means to keep them relevant and in the public eye. However, not all endorsements are created equally.

We’re all too familiar with the stories of celebrities who have “let down” a brand from Tiger Woods embarrassment of Nike to Cybil Shepherd’s admission that she didn’t eat meat as a spokesperson for The Beef Industry Council. Yet it’s interesting to note the opposite of the halo effect: pairing a popular celebrity with the wrong product endorsement can result in a decline in their star power.

Recently, a study profiled in The Harvard Business Review and conducted at the Florida Institute of Technology shows that for currently popular celebrities, being affiliated with a poorly perceived brand can negatively impact how attractive and trustworthy their adoring fans believe them to be.  And in their line of work, that’s major.

It’s a useful lesson for the reality stars and wanna-be influencers of tomorrow: we are judged by the company we keep. In regular life, we may have an opportunity to prove ourselves beyond associations and have the negative connotations from a poor association fall away. This may be the only luxury not afforded to celebrities.

In order to bounce back from a poor endorsement deal, even – perhaps especially – “celebrities” with less than world-class athleticism or movie star magnetism will have to work twice as hard to overcome any negative associations. People may not get to know them as a person, and the negative associations just end up getting wrapped into their public persona, which could possibly stay with them for the remainder of their careers.

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Characteristics of a leader

Posted: April 14, 2011 - 7:45 PM ET - by Elisabeth

“It’s one of the characteristics of a leader that he not doubt for one moment the capacity of the people he is leading to realize whatever he’s dreaming.”

I don’t worry so much about “managing.” The communications professionals I work with are at the top of their game. They don’t really need to be managed, but I do think a lot about how I can be a good leader.

How do I define a “good” leader?

More importantly, how does my team?

By definition, “to lead” is as simple as “to take someone somewhere,” but as a business owner, with aspirations to build a company and make our services indispensable to clients, I want the trip to be one of inspiration. The people I work with are the key to being indispensable. How do I inspire them to imagine that possibility?

“My job [is] to awaken possibility in other people.”

Many books, articles, videos, even motivational quotes offer insight, but one of the most poignant pieces of advice I’ve seen about being a good leader – and being a passionate person – comes from a TED Talk by Benjamin Zander.

His wit and humor grab you from the first moments of the video. If you’re a music lover, you’ll enjoy this one. If you’re not, you may enjoy it even more.  If you’re sentimental, you’ll need tissue. … and if you’re a leader, well I hope it makes your eyes shine. It did mine!

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Does size matter?

Posted: February 4, 2011 - 2:41 PM ET - by Elisabeth

I’m following a recommendation from communications experts to draw you in with a provocative title. Read on … I promise there’s good advice – and an answer – waiting.

Sometimes when we ask a client how he or she would define the success of a communications initiative, we hear “coverage on the front page of The Wall Street Journal …

or on Oprah …

or 5,000 facebook fans …

or 1,000,000 Twitter followers …”


Yet, often, that’s not really where their audience is. National outlets, prominent media personalities and big audience numbers aren’t always the best use of time, money or your communications team.

The power of technology and a rapidly growing number of online outlets give businesses nearly unlimited opportunities to connect with people most interested in hearing from and interacting with them. … and as entrepreneurial guru Barry Moltz says, “We actually can’t sell anything to anyone; we just need to be there when people are ready to buy.”

One of the most important steps in planning marketing communications to support your product, service or entity is to define your audience:

  • Is there a demographic that has the greatest need to apply your invention to their situation – for example, work-from-home dads as opposed to all employed men?
  • Is there a group that has an immediate demand for the goods or services you can provide – nursing mothers as opposed to all women with children?
  • Is there actually a smaller group of specialists who are likely to be the biggest adopters of your product or information – oncology nurses as opposed to all registered nurses?
  • Is there a special interest group that may embrace your offering – Mac users rather than anyone with a computer?

The next critical step is to figure out how to reach them efficiently and compellingly:

  • Entrepreneurs may in fact be readers of The Wall Street Journal, but they may also subscribe to Crain’s business publications in their cities or to industry newsletters or blogs for relevant information.
  • Nursing mothers may watch Oprah, but they also receive and review follow-up correspondence from their ob/gyns and hospitals or birthing centers to get information from experts they trust.
  • Oncology nurses may in fact be facebook users, but perhaps they look to professional web sites and other online outlets for continuing medical education, career advancement and practice knowledge.
  • … and Mac users … well, okay, they seem to be a pretty pervasive group.

Trade publications, newsletters, and blogs don’t always have big circulation numbers, but they may reach exactly who’s buying what you’re selling. Not everyone needs facebook fans or a Twitter following; it may feel exciting and current, but it’s not always the right context.

With all the information the internet provides on what people are reading, doing, buying and recommending, you can tailor your communications to reach them efficiently and speak to them compellingly. With a targeted approach you can do that in a place where, and at a time when, they are acutely aware of their need.

So yes, size does matter. … but it’s the size of your impact, not your audience.

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