The Long Game: Karen Winterhalter

June 1, 2020

After 20 years’ experience in global healthcare communications, Karen Winterhalter returned to her native North East ten years ago to establish Onyx Health – a specialist marketing communications agency that works with life sciences, pharmaceutical and medical technology companies. Here, the managing director reflects on changing healthcare communication strategies


When I first started working in public relations, we were in the era of the blockbuster drugs being launched. Many of these drugs we take for granted now, but when Lipitor, the firstever statin, launched it was big news. Nearly all our work revolved around media relations. Healthcare editors on the nationals and women’s magazines lapped it up, and if there was a photo opportunity, you were guaranteed coverage. I have had photographers stand on the roof of a fertility clinic to get a shot of the hundredth child born through IVF. I also had Margi Clarke, a hilarious actress, dressed as Marilyn Monroe on Marble Arch, to launch the Good HRT Guide. I nearly made the top slot of every news channel with the launch of a treatment for Motor Neurone Disease – only to be beaten by Alan Shearer signing for Newcastle United for £15 million.


Today, marketing communications is entirely different. Media relations do still matter but getting good coverage is much harder. The nationals have their agendas and there is so much aggregated content that the real story can get lost. It also only creates awareness of a product but that one touchpoint is not enough to drive people into action. Instead, we need to consider how we engage and create an on going dialogue with customers, as the decision-making process in healthcare often takes so much longer. As many of our clients are life science SME companies who are disrupting the market, we usually recommend a regional media approach combined with excellent social media content, which helps drive website SEO to get them noticed. It is interesting to see how the impact of COVID-19 has seen LinkedIn become a trusted source of information and a great way to connect with potential customers.


A significant amount of our work involves medical education at congresses. Pre-COVID-19, we were already working towards digitalising these activities, as we saw a decline in delegates attendance from the main EU countries and the US. As people continue to question the need to travel, we must think differently about how we connect with healthcare professionals (HCPs). It is highly unlikely company representatives will be able to enjoy the on-site access to HCP they had before COVID-19, so marketing communications will shift to remote engagement. This is simply not about putting existing materials on a website. We need to think about the problem we are trying to solve for the HCP, how we create a dialogue and provide them with excellent customer experience. This experience may be in a virtual setting or a different type of platform to a website, as you want them to continually come back to your content.

Onyx Health

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