Abbey Flanagan is Communications Manager at The Hospital Research Foundation who’s had a long term focus on health PR. Here, she talks about the challenges of her role, the importance of having a niche, and her approach to sharing research.
Tell us a bit about your background and current role.
I have a Bachelor of Journalism from the University of South Australia and a Graduate Certificate in Business (Public Relations) from Queensland University of Technology. It was in my third and final year of journalism that I realised I was more suited to a career in PR, where I could combine strategic thinking with my passion for writing and managing brand reputation. Starting my career in an award-winning boutique PR firm in Sydney focused on health and wellbeing, I’ve now returned home to Adelaide and progressed to the role of Communications Manager at The Hospital Research Foundation (THRF). I thrive on working in the constantly evolving health sector and having the opportunity to meet inspiring medical and clinical professionals and patients with incredible (occasionally heartbreaking) stories to share. I believe that raising consumer awareness of medical research can play a key role in improving the lives of our local and global community.
I get a bit of a kick out of taking something technical
and making sense of it for a general member of the public
You manage a lot of brands in your role. How do you approach that? Does each have a separate communications plan – or do you work with other comms providers on some brands?
THRF is a unique business operating several philanthropic brands to drive more support to medical research and patient care. For example, one of the brands we operate is The Repat Foundation – The Road Home, a national brand focused on supporting research and delivering programs to benefit the health and wellbeing of our veterans, emergency service personnel and importantly their families. While my team approach all our brands differently, part of the success of THRF’s model is transparency and we talk about this brand model in all our communications. It’s important as Communications Manager to drive activity for each of our brands that also contributes to THRF’s overarching strategic brand and builds our footprint in the community.
What are some of the key challenges of being a comms manager in the not-for-profit environment?
Being a Communications Manager in the not-for-profit environment brings similar challenges to a corporate environment – connecting and engaging with stakeholders who live in a world full of noise. Driving brand awareness is not enough. The key is to provide powerful validation for people or organisations who currently support our cause, or who have the potential to do so in the future. Gone are the days where people will just dig into their pocket and donate. The challenge is now, how do we build relationships with these people and take them on a journey? One way this is achieved is by delivering content that demonstrates the impact their support can have. In our case, how any donation, small or large, can play a role in saving lives through medical research or patient care advancements.
How do you go about distilling medical research information into a media release which wider audiences can understand?
The fun stuff! While I don’t have a science background of any kind, I get a bit of a kick out of taking something technical and making sense of it for a general member of the public – call me crazy!
For me, the key to achieving this is sitting down face to face with the researcher and hearing not only about how their research works (and asking lots of questions) but about them and what they hope to achieve. Some of this can really pull at the heart strings and this is often where the story is. It’s inspiring digging deeper than the science and hearing what drives these researchers each day.
This was an amazing insight and comforting to know that my peers
on the other side of the world are facing the same challenges
Today’s comms professionals need to be abreast of what digital communications offers. How do you educate yourself in this field?
It blows me away how quickly the digital world is progressing – but it’s exciting. Working in the communications field I believe it’s crucial to make digital part of your world – professionally and personally. I read my news online every morning rather than the paper anymore, I take part in webinars, subscribe to expert EDMS and importantly I chat to some of my close friends and colleagues who are thriving in the digital space. Last year I attended the International Fundraising Congress in Amsterdam and ensured I participated in several sessions around digital communications. This was an amazing insight and comforting to know that my peers on the other side of the world are facing the same challenges in this evolving space.
What advice would you give a third-year university student who’s keen to work in PR?
Pick a niche to help get your foot in the door. I worked in a medical centre during university and it was then I realised I was interested in health PR. I focused my specialist reporting study at uni on health reporting and developed a portfolio focused in this area. I also completed my university internship at Australian Doctor Magazine in Sydney. PR is so competitive. Having a niche area you’re passionate about will help you stand out from the crowd. That also doesn’t mean you can’t branch out and work in other areas. I’ve had a stint in the wine industry, which was extremely beneficial for my career development. Many elements of that role provided me with a broader skill set and knowledge base for my current position.
I also participated in a short Foreign Correspondent course in Prague
during university where I investigated the state of
mental healthcare in the Czech Republic.
Work experience is also so important – if you get an opportunity to intern somewhere make sure you put your heart and soul into it and get to know the people working there. It’s these people that make an impression and end up getting hired.
You spent some time volunteering in Ecuador. Tell us about some of the highlights and challenges of that experience.
This was a short volunteer placement working in a remote village in Ecuador, helping them construct much needed amenities and teaching children English. The experience was a highlight of my time at university and it also gave me a point of difference on my resume when I started trying to get my foot in the door. It showed I was willing to put myself out of my comfort zone. I also participated in a short Foreign Correspondent course in Prague during university where I investigated the state of mental healthcare in the Czech Republic. This was an eye opener for me and was one of the key moments where I realised a career in health PR was one way I could help drive change for people in need.
Time for a fun question: what’s the best movie you’ve seen this year and why did you like it?
I will admit I saw Baywatch recently and had a good laugh, but I really can’t go past the film Lion. What I loved most about the film was that being based on a true story, we got to see vision of the real-life people at the end of the film. This movie is inspirational storytelling at its finest.