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PR Interview with Susan Venables, Co-founder and Client Services Director of Highland Marketing

Susan Venables established Highland Marketing in 2002 after a long career working with well-known agencies and clients ranging from SMEs to multi-nationals. Specialising in the technology and healthcare IT sectors, Susan explains how the agency has an insider’s perspective and its current campaign for FairWarning.

About the agency

What industry sectors does Highland Marketing specialise in?
We are a market leader in the areas of healthcare IT and cover other aspects of the healthcare industry including medical devices and pharmaceuticals. We also specialise in the technology sector.

Although we are based in the UK, our clients are international and we provide marketing and communications services for them throughout EMEA, North America and beyond.

What is special about the agency’s approach to PR?
We have an insider’s perspective. Our team includes people with many years of experience as suppliers to the healthcare and technology sectors, so they have a full-blooded understanding of their needs and challenges. We also understand the media from the inside, having a number of journalists as part of the team, with impressive track records in national newspapers and the specialist press. On top of that there’s the fact that we have an intimate knowledge of our sector and unrivalled contacts.

How do you ensure your clients get the right coverage in the press?
Strategy, contacts and sheer hard work. We help clients to develop a coherent plan and work with them to identify and develop compelling news stories and features. We also try to emphasise the need to use all available media, not just the press, to get their message across. That creates a virtuous circle, because the more journalists become aware of them and their products, the more likely they are to write about them.

In some cases we help clients build a reputation, in others we can help repair a damaged image. Whatever their needs, the baseline needs to be an agreed set of messages and some clear objectives. Just pumping out press releases is not enough.

What do you look for in new recruits?
We only take on people with a proven track record and who have worked at a high level in their industry, whether that’s media, marketing, PR or healthcare and technology. Most of our team have a minimum of ten years experience in their field. Everyone who works with us also has to demonstrate a real knowledge of our target sectors. The fact that our people understand the client’s business is something that marks us out from the crowd and provides clients with the best possible value.

About clients

What issues are facing the healthcare IT industry at the moment, and how are you helping clients to prepare for them?
There are several big issues facing our healthcare IT clients. First is that money is tighter than ever for health services worldwide. Second is that all healthcare providers are struggling with how to provide better services for ageing populations with growing numbers of long-term and chronic conditions. And in the UK there is the ongoing reorganisation of the NHS plus the crumbling of the National Programme for IT.

It’s a mixed picture of expanding opportunities, shrinking budgets and an urgent need among healthcare providers to do more for less. What’s great about many of our clients is that they have everything it takes to thrive in this kind of environment. Their products are specifically geared to promote efficiency, to speed up services and reduce costs. We help clients by getting them to the top of the pile in terms of brand recognition, so customers want to talk to them – seeing their technology as a worthwhile investment in tough times. Ultimately we lay the groundwork for sales.

Tell us about one of your clients you are working with at the moment. What campaign do you have planned?
We are working with a US company called FairWarning. They are a supplier of healthcare privacy auditing solutions for electronic health records (EHR), which has huge worldwide potential. The software lets hospitals monitor exactly who is accessing patient records – detecting and stopping security breaches. The problems caused by staff accessing records they have no right to see are quite staggering. Fraud, blackmail, job losses and social humiliation are just some of the risks associated with this kind of data theft.

We have a campaign underway which has started by raising awareness of the issues through detailed opinion pieces, which have now been widely published. Stage two will be the release of the results of a UK-wide opinion survey which highlight public attitudes and concerns about patient confidentiality. We have used our understanding of the market to produce material which is specifically geared to the interests of specialist media, mainstream UK newspapers, plus the Scottish, Welsh and English regional press. It’s a powerful campaign and we believe it will cause quite a stir. Watch out for the coverage!

In your opinion, what is the best coverage you’ve achieved for a client?
It would be all too easy to point to cases where we’ve got lots of TV and newspaper coverage and say it’s the best because it has been the biggest. But the real test is whether you get coverage in the places where a client’s target audience will be looking. For that reason I don’t want to pick a particular case – one story in the right specialist magazine might be far more valuable than a dozen elsewhere.

What has been the biggest challenge for the agency?
There is one constant challenge which comes ahead of all the others. That is to ensure clients understand that every marketing and communications activity must address the customer and answer their one key question – what is the benefit for me? In order to do that they need to understand news values and have a clear set of messages. We address this by stripping everything down to the fundamentals, get them to tell us what their existing customers value about them and why prospective ones would choose them ahead of their competitors. Once these basics are in place, all else should follow.

About journalists

What can you offer to journalists seeking a story on one of your clients?
We offer an understanding of their needs and deadlines. In many cases we can help them get fuller and better stories than they expected because we use our knowledge of our clients and the sector to get good interviews and strong case studies. We can also help by priming interviewees, encouraging them to give full and open answers and overcome the nervousness that they may have in dealing with the press.

How do you build and maintain strong relationships with journalists?
Trust and familiarity. We maintain close contacts with many journalists and know what appeals to them and their publications. In some cases we have relationships that go back for decades. A number of our team are journalists themselves, having worked in reporting and editing roles and across a range of media, so they speak the same language and understand the pressures of the job.

About you

How useful do you find social media?
Increasingly useful. It is vital in ensuring the maximum awareness of a client and what they do and allows them to engage in dialogue, rather than simply to push out messages and hope they are reaching the desired audience. And when stories are published about our clients, social media is a great way to alert potential readers.

So let’s face it, love it or hate it, social media is here to stay and the digitisation of media is reality. And by using digital media campaigns, companies can be more imaginative and effective in their communications. They can reach far more people, much more often, and with tailored information. Even more powerfully, they can enter into direct relationships with potential and existing customers – building strong bonds and winning sales.

Do you attend networking events? If so, which are you attending soon?
Yes, wherever relevant, but networking is much more than just attending events. We all do it every day whether speaking to people or through using the online social networking forums that are now available. But it is important to be seen and meet people face-to-face, so expect to see one of our team at one of the many events coming up – the Healthcare Efficiency Expo, EHI Live, Intellect UK functions, and the Green IT Expo are just some examples.

What is the best bit of business advice you’ve ever been given?
A couple spring to mind. Someone once told me ‘we’ve got two ears and one mouth, so we should listen more and talk less’. The other originates from the boy scouts ‘be prepared’; in other words, ‘don’t wing it’.

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[img|jpg|Susan Venables]