Telum Talks To… Leon Beswick, Managing Director, opr Health

Telum Talks To… Leon Beswick, Managing Director, opr Health
September 22, 2016 Leon Beswick

Can you tell us a little about opr Health and how it fits within the wider Ogilvy offering?

opr Health was set up almost nine years ago as a conflict brand for Parker and Partners who was doing an incredible amount of health work at the time. So we ended up starting the agency from scratch in Darling St, as we were then and have built a team which has had a fairly broad focus from wellness and healthy living on one side through to ethical pharma, medical research and new discoveries on the other.

What led you to focus specifically on communications within the health industry?
Well I had a Public Affairs background, so my first job was working for Michael Wooldridge when he was Health Minister. So I was lucky enough to have a ground-floor view of the health system in Australia, federally. Then I went to work and looked after the Health Care Social Policy within the Office of Jeff Kennett just before the election in 1999. So I had the interesting perspectives of the health system operating on both the state and federal level, and the way that the health industry in particular interacts with the government itself. They’ve improved a great deal with the amount of communication and stakeholder engagement they have. But it was one of those opportunities I saw as a business, along with Andrew Parker, Parker & Partners was set up a result of that.

Ogilvy are very good at allowing you the space to set up ideas, giving you the seed money to help do it and enabling you to go away and develop that idea. Parker & Partners was bought out by Ogilvy but opr Health was a product of that incubation period where they do literally encourage you to come up with ideas and develop them into business plans.

You have an impressive background in health policy and health PR. What aspects / practical considerations set the health PR profession apart?
Often we’re dealing with a monopoly purchaser, first and foremost. The government is literally the only party that will pay for these products and services on behalf of the consumer. Because we have what the Americans would call a ‘socialised’ healthcare system, where the expectation is that the government will pay for major health services, often our key engagement partner is… the government. That sets us up, apart from defence industries, which also have this monopoly purchaser, no one else buys armoured vehicles. So it is slightly unique, in that you’re not just dealing with trying to get consumers to understand and to buy into what you’re doing – you’re also getting the government to buy into it as well.

Health PR sometimes gets a bad reputation for the way it works with “Big Pharma”. What would you say in response?
Well health PR is the most regulated part of all PR full stop. We have a Medicines Australia code of conduct that we adhere to, we adhere to the Medical Technology Industry Association code of conduct for medical technologies and then every company that we work with has an internal code of conduct that is often stricter.

So we are the most highly regulated part of the communications industry by a country mile. Ethically we would be head and shoulders above the way in which we need to present balanced, accurate, informative information in a way that people can understand and in a way that sometimes challenges the more paternalistic nature of the healthcare information industry – where you go to see the Doctor and they will tell you that information. Whereas the one thing the information economy has done is allowing consumers the ability to go and look for that information and for them to understand it.

What are the trends in health public relations, and how are you facing the challenge of less specialist health media and a greater impact of social media?
That’s really interesting and one of the things that we’ve enjoyed about patients using online as a vehicle to talk to each other and to share insights is that you also get to sit back and see how they’re talking about illnesses that they’re living with, the medications they’re taking and how they’re talking about it. This then allows you to embrace what they’re saying rather than embrace the jargon of medical professionals and pharmaceutical medicine companies. So that’s probably one of the things that we’ve been fortunate enough to see, particularly in Australia over the last five years, where there has been many more of these groups taking shape. And you can actually see how they’re talking about things because, when companies use jargon like “unmet medical need” to describe things and most people don’t quite understand what that means.

What are the issues that keep your clients awake at night?
Probably a lot of it, if they’re looking at medicines and looking at doing a lot of medical research, is funding. Because the government is looking for savings and offsets for new expenditure and the medicine industry has gone through not one but two rounds of mandatory cost cutting.

So I guess it’s not so much getting things half way through the process, it’s where the money’s coming from. And probably at the end of the day, when you’ve got a monopoly purchaser, the risk to you as you’re moving your way through new innovations, whether it be technology, medical research projects or new medicines, is that they all deal with a purchaser who is reluctant to pay for that innovation and pay for the thinking.

Most memorable campaign or project you’ve been involved in?
In the more recent years it would probably be the Medical Research Future Fund Action Group (MRFF). A $20 billion MRFF, which is the biggest investment in the future healthcare of every Australian. The $20 billion endowment will be set up to fund Australian research and change the lives of everyone around the world.

Also, one that was a lot of fun to work on was the relaunch of Fitness First a couple of years ago. We had Jane Fonda out from the US and it was just a wonderful launch from start to finish. We were given the ability to really kick things off in a way that payed homage to an exercise icon and to a brand that was looking to change the way that people saw themselves.

Where do you get your news from?
I look towards long form news journalism in healthcare and one of the news publications that we subscribe to is The New York Times. They’re still running incredibly insightful and deep long form articles in the major disease areas and they really go and do a deep dive on them. So I use that as a bench mark.

To be honest we still have it here in the weekend newspapers where they have a bit more of a breadth to be able to do it. The weekend SMH and the weekend Aus are still doing great things like that.

Favourite blog or online influencer?
It’s a podcast, called Keepin’ it 1600, which is the address of the Whitehouse, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave and it’s by Obama’s former speech writer and some of his key advisors – Jon Favreau, Dan Pfeiffer, Jon Lovett and Tommy Vietor. It’s literally just Democrats comparing notes about the US elections and it’s absolutely brilliant. It’s a lot of fun, so when I’m driving home I just put one of the podcasts on and by the time it’s done I’m pulling into my driveway.

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