How did you get started in healthcare public and investor relations?
From an early age I have always been drawn to medicine, and even while my studies for my undergraduate, masters and doctoral degrees were in psychology I focused on my work on nature and less on nurture. Consequently, I took a large dose of physiology and biology classes in the lead up to my doctorate. While I originally thought I would go into research when I graduated, funding for social sciences research had been dramatically cut and I quickly realized that I needed to begin looking into alternative careers. I first thought of business school, but then I realized that if I could get a taste of business by working on Wall Street, I could then gauge whether it would make sense to get an MBA. It was on Wall Street that I learned about financial public relations and that is when my career started. After two years on Wall Street I joined a public relations agency and over the years naturally gravitated towards healthcare public relations, due to my inherent interest in the medical field.
At this time it was the mid 1980’s and biotechnology was beginning to take off. My partner and I decided to form an agency solely focused on the healthcare space, and in 1988 Noonan/Russo was founded, which evolved into today’s Russo Partners.
What do you believe are the important qualities a healthcare public and investor relations agency should possess?
It is so important for a healthcare public and investor relations agency to be able to speak the language of the companies they represent. From day one we realized that we needed to hire people who had worked in the medical field or had scientific backgrounds-Ph.D.’s and M.D.’s-who could articulate the science and be able to speak the same language our clients and their target audiences speak. We also knew that we wanted people that were passionate about their work and the science behind it, which you are more likely to find in people who have studied science at an advanced level. To this day, each of these qualities is a critical part of our success.
What is one of your favorite announcements that you have handled?
Well, there are so many. However, one of my favorite announcements we handled was the first mapping of the human genome in 1991. This was the first announcement we could find in the biotech area that mentioned the Internet. At that time, people hadn’t heard of a genome, much less a map of one, and the Internet was not a term that was used in connection to anything except in theory. In fact we had to define the Internet in the news release by calling it “the new super highway, the Internet.” That announcement gave us an opportunity to educate the public and the media about the significance of the genome, the Internet and mapping. This news ended up making the front page of The New York Times.
Another fun announcement was the cloning of the first mice in the 1990’s. This was after Dolly had been cloned, so this announcement also required much education about the significance of the news. Even when we first took on the project, a member of our staff said to me, “Tony, why is anyone going to care. We already cloned a sheep? Who cares about mice?” I then realized that we needed to make the connection to the lab and to scientific research which may have not been obvious to most people. Through our work, this advance ended up being well received and generated global attention, including broadcast news and again, was placed on the front page of The New York Times. However, the interesting part was that people became fascinated with the mice. They wanted to follow them to see where they went next and what they were doing. They were like celebrities, and ended up on Jay Leno and in gossip columns! The investors loved the story.
How have you seen the field of public relations evolve over the past few decades?
In the past, public relations was media relations and working with the media was much simpler-there was a set list of publications with which it was important to interact. Now, however the world is flat and there are thousands of outlets that are important to consider for reaching your target audience-print, online, blogs, broadcast (televised and also online), radio, Twitter and YouTube, to name a few. A web-based publication can be as important to an organization as The Wall Street Journal. There are more opportunities for coverage, but it also means that it is important to think through in great detail your media strategy-who you speak with and when. It is much more important to cultivate a media list of journalists you court and with which you build a relationship. Today you also have to think about news on a global basis, which influences factors such as timing of the announcement, where it is announced, when, etc.
The digital age has also changed interactions with the media. An average journalist can easily get hundreds of emails per day, and likely 50 plus news releases, and it is highly unlikely they are able to read all of this correspondence. In fact, they may only read a fraction and not even open up most of the attached news release. This means that your relationships and what you send are critical in obtaining coverage.
Breaking through a journalist’s cluttered universe is an art, and to do this successfully requires building a compelling story. News bureaus have been shrinking, and it is common for a journalist to cover multiple beats, meaning they are hit with news at all times. In addition, now journalists need to write for both print and online portions of the publication, stretching their time even further. This means it is more important than ever to build a compelling story that will command attention despite a journalist’s busy schedule, and to be strategic with your media communications.