Telum Talks To... Kirsten Bruce, Founder and Owner of VIVA! Communications

Telum Talks To... Kirsten Bruce, Founder and Owner of VIVA! Communications

Why did you choose to work in healthcare PR?
My father died from two cancers at the age of 42. Watching what he endured, and the lack of effective treatments then available for his diseases which ultimately robbed him of his life, ignited my interest in healthcare, passion for, and drive to help others similarly requiring urgent access to lifesaving treatment. 

Tell us about the most memorable campaign you have worked on at VIVA! Communications over the past 18 years.
VIVA! Communications was engaged by a small patient support group in February 2014, to persuade the Federal Government to subsidise Soliris® - the only effective treatment then available for the ultra-rare, life-threatening blood disease, aHUS, then affecting just 28 known Australians - at an extraordinary, unsubsidised cost of AU$600,000 per adult, per year. 

Together with the aHUS Patient Support Group Australia (aPSGA), we worked tirelessly over 11 months to bring the issue to the attention of industry decision makers, including then Prime Minister, and former Health Minister The Hon. Tony Abbott MP, The Hon. Peter Dutton MP and many other MPs.

We coordinated a strategic communications campaign involving a plethora of national and local (grassroots) news media announcements. We established and maintained an aHUS patient group website and social media channels, and appointed a "Champion for Life" Ambassador, among many other activities to secure full subsidisation of Soliris® on the PBS from 1st December 2014, with $63 million allocated over the ensuing four years.

It was such a privilege to represent this small, Australian patient support group, and through our healthcare PR campaign, to literally save lives. 

What have been the biggest changes in healthcare PR over the past 18 years?
Over the past 18 years we’ve witnessed a progressive and substantive decline in the use of print media, and a subsequent increase in digital media.

The birth of social media in 1997, and its unprecedented uptake worldwide, has armed health communicators with invaluable, additional communication channels. Social media has enabled health communicators to increase the volume of their interactions with multiple audiences, and to access, share and tailor information to specific audiences. Social media has also served to increase peer-to-peer, social and emotional support for members of the community, and to drive community engagement.

The evolution of digital and social media has enabled faster, more interactive and immediate management of various healthcare-related issues and crises, while the speed and geographic outreach of communication campaigns and their respective messages, has grown increasingly complex over the past 18 years. The rise of mobile sharing, Google Docs and video conferencing platforms, such as Zoom, are enabling healthcare PR agencies to collaborate faster and more efficiently than ever before.

Media monitoring and measurement has also changed over the past 18 years. The sophisticated tools we use today to monitor media and the various metrics to determine campaign success have evolved substantially, from readership, circulation and column length, to unique monthly visitors, number of clicks and social shares.

How did your wealth of experience in healthcare PR prepare you for the COVID-19 pandemic?
The COVID-19 pandemic has cultivated an extraordinarily issues-rich healthcare environment, and a fiercely competitive news media landscape.

Throughout our 18-year-long agency history, VIVA! has weathered countless storms, including the 2008 GFC, from which we emerged a stronger, more robust and resilient health and wellness communications agency.

Over the years we’ve prepared for and managed countless healthcare-related issues and crises. We’ve worked doggedly to cultivate relationships with various stakeholders, professional and patient advocacy groups, key medical and consumer health journalists and their respective publications. This first-hand experience has armed us with invaluable knowledge of how best to counsel and guide our much-valued clientele through turbulent times, such as the recent COVID-19 pandemic.

Arguably the most important lesson we’ve learned as a communications agency over the past 18 years is to exercise honesty and transparency at all times, no matter what the potential repercussions, and to maintain open lines of communication with our staff, clientele, stakeholders and the media alike.

How are you achieving cut-through for your healthcare clients when the news cycle is dominated by COVID-19 news?
Timing is critical. We’ve spent the past six months counselling our clients to adopt a patient-first approach to accommodate the rapidly evolving COVID-19 landscape. Where applicable, we’ve worked a COVID-19 news angle into our media announcements.

Our longstanding relationships with journalists have never been as important as now. Arming a journalist with comprehensive content, collateral and the contacts they require, and never leaving a stone unturned, can be the difference between securing a story in this challenging news media environment, or otherwise. Providing journalists with a longer lead-time to file their stories has also proven an effective media strategy.

What will the communications industry look like in Australia post COVID-19?
Communications and media relations post COVID-19 will be vastly different. We will see a much smaller pool of media outlets (this week alone, Bauer Media Australia announced the closure of eight titles), and a smaller cohort of journalists jostling for the same story. Competition will be fierce.

The healthcare and communications industries will need to adapt to the changes in healthcare, such as an increased use of telehealth. Since March 2020, an extraordinary 7 million MBS-funded telehealth consultations have been reported, which will impact the continuity of care for those living with chronic medical conditions. Innumerable scientific meetings have, and will continue to be cancelled worldwide, forcing clinicians and researchers to re-evaluate how they can best collaborate and network, moving forward.

The fees for communication degrees will, most likely, increase while immigration will decline, with travel restrictions in place for the foreseeable future. Which begs the question, will there be enough PR practitioners to support Australia’s ongoing industry growth?

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