W2O’s Aaron Strout and What We all Can Learn from Healthcare Comms

It can’t be said enough. The people on the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic front lines are doing heroic work. First responders. Doctors, nurses, and hospital staff. Medical researchers.

They’re all laboring under extraordinary circumstances. Many are putting their own lives at risk.

That’s why Aaron Strout, the Chief Marketing Officer of W2O, keeps returning to one phrase as he describes the agency’s work right now with the healthcare sector:

In service of.

Aaron Strout“We strongly believe in the idea of making the world a healthier place through marketing communications,” Strout said. “This is an unprecedented time that we won’t likely ever live through again. Communication is at a premium. We’re trying to be in service of the industry because this is a moment where the world can be healthier through the right communication to help slow the pandemic.”

W2O has a unique perspective on the communication challenges these organizations are facing – and overcoming. We chatted with Strout to find out what W2O is seeing and what other businesses can learn from the Herculean efforts in the healthcare world.

What’s W2O connection to healthcare and medical science?

“We’re a 1,300-person agency that works with large companies in pharma, life sciences, digital health, and medical technology. We have a lot of smart, savvy people who have been in traditional healthcare comms, crisis comms, and PR. We also have a very deep scientific bench of M.D.s and Ph.D.s that helps us better understand and explain the trends we see throughout healthcare. That allows us to create med-comms strategies because we have so many domain experts not only in medicine and technology but also in things like communications and social media. We use digital insights to help clients find creative solutions to the problems around both explaining and delivering healthcare.”

What is healthcare comms focused on right now?

“There are two things. Most communication is around testing for the virus, the search for a vaccine, the need for ventilators and all the PPEs (Personal Protective Equipment). Sober conversations are happening as we all look for hope. That’s where the focus is for comms. The second thing is the long-term impact on public health and the idea of telemedicine. The tiny glimmer of a silver lining here is that digital medicine is being fast-forwarded. There’s a discussion about looking for what good might come out of all of this. What will medicine look like? How will we treat patients differently, collect data differently, and bring collaborative approaches to solve healthcare challenges moving forward?”

Are comms pros also working on those front lines?

“During COVID-19? Yes. Everyone has up-leveled their roles because of this crisis. They’re thinking hard about presenting the right message and portraying a sense of calm while informing the public. They’re working behind the scenes to communicate things like if they have enough N95 masks. They understand the critical importance of putting out the right signals to the world. That’s the way organizations can make the best decisions possible and how they can explain them to the public.”

What lessons can all of us learn from healthcare?

“We’ve always been big believers that you should have a crisis communication plan in place and be an expert on connecting with your employees. The healthcare industry is doing this exceptionally well right now. Our CEO (Jim Weiss) often talks about how communication is leadership. I think COVID-19 is showing the truth of this idea. Leaders who are listening to, having empathy with, and communicating with their employees and other stakeholders are the ones making a difference right now.”

What are some other examples?

“Well, they’re reinventing their models. Organizations are trying to figure out which people should be doing what. You see that a lot around COVID-19 just by watching the news. Who should be coming into the emergency room? Should we be triaging people in parking lots? How do we not put people at risk who don’t have COVID-19? It’s an opportunity for them to think outside of the box in an unimaginable, dire situation. It’s also pushing them to communicate better even under great duress. They’re being forced to do it faster, with more urgency, and more rigor than they’ve ever had to do before. Comms is such a critical piece to helping all of us get through this and solve this horrific problem. It’s more important than ever to be good communicators.”

Do you see any other “silver linings” to this crisis?

“We’re not a Pollyanna. But one thing we have seen is an unprecedented level of collaboration among companies that might traditionally be competitors. For example, we’re working with different stakeholders to make emergency ventilators out of sleep apnea machines. It’s amazing to see this group come together, jump in, and get this moving to fix the problem. We’re also doing everything we can to help get PPEs in the hands of the front-line workers by looking at digital assessments to see who needs what. We’re supporting clients as they do more testing and search for a vaccine. That’s what I mean when I say we’re trying to be in service of the industry more than ever been before.”

Listen to a recording of our recent webinar, “What Companies Can Learn from Healthcare Crisis Communication” here. You will hear Dynamic Signal Communication Expert Becky Graebe joined by Strout, Pfizer Senior Director of Content Strategy & Engagement Ellen Gerstein, and Takeda Head of Vaccine Communications Amy Atwood as they explore how healthcare comms pros are coping with this crisis.

Post Author

Mark Emmons

Mark Emmons is the storyteller at Dynamic Signal. He previously was a newspaper reporter at the Detroit Free Press, the Orange County Register, and the San Jose Mercury News. He reluctantly uses the Oxford comma.