Keys to Successful Virtual Medical Meetings

May 26, 2020

With medical meetings and congresses going virtual in the face of COVID-19, how do pharma companies put together a strategic plan for a new format that meets goals while remaining sensitive to the broader environment?

On the very first day of my first real PR job, I walked into an office in a flurry. It was the day before the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) annual meeting, and more than half of the healthcare team was working on the project. Senior team members were fielding calls from clients and trying to finish packing; mid-level staff were proofing press releases and finalizing monitoring protocols; and my peers were furiously printing materials for on-site binders. It was chaos and over the years I would come to learn and love everything about it. 

For the healthcare world, medical meetings and congresses are the Super Bowl. Medical communications and corporate affairs teams at pharma and biotech companies start prepping for the largest conferences a year in advance. These meetings are the penultimate opportunity for these companies to share the latest research on new and potentially life saving medicines. But, they’re also an opportunity to meet with doctors, nurses, researchers, patients and advocates to discuss the greatest needs of the community and establish who they and what they stand for. 

In a COVID-19 world, medical meetings and congresses, like so many other events, look a little different. A third of these congresses have been cancelled or postponed with no updates on when they may happen. But approximately half of these meetings have “gone virtual.” 

In some ways, the shift to virtual changes very little. With the rise of Twitter and other social media platforms, digital activities around medical meetings have grown in importance. Gone are the days where a doctor or researcher or reporter needed to be at the meeting to get the latest data. In today’s world those who do attend the meeting live tweet the big presentations, disseminating these findings around the globe in seconds. 

Instead, the challenges presented by a virtual format surround the unknown. Anyone who has worked in healthcare PR knows the key to a successful medical meeting is meticulous planning. We plan everything from social media calendars to press release distribution timing to work rooms to dinner with clients. And the strength of our planning is based on experience and lessons learned from previous years successes and missteps. 

So how do you plan for something you know like the back of your hand, yet have never done before? 

• Be flexible: As PR and communications professionals, we hate leaving ANYTHING to chance. We thrive on detailed project plans and outlines that guide our way to the finish line. But the reality is that this year, that’s impossible. Your carefully laid out plans will change. Probably weekly. Instill upon your clients and teams the importance of being able to pivot quickly and think on their feet. 

• Be bold: This is the year to look outside the healthcare industry for inspiration. Our tried and true activities (press releases, exhibition booths, roundtable meetings) may not work in a virtual environment. Look to other companies that use digital channels as their primary medium - Disney, Amazon, Coca Cola – on best practices to get your message across.

• Be sensitive: The world is a vastly different place, and doctors, nurses, researchers and advocates are dealing with the same struggles the rest of us are. This is a time to go back to the original goal of medical meetings: sharing data and research for the benefit of patients. PR and communications should prioritize this goal above all else, and digital should be used to reach those who need it most.

More than anything, this is a year to simplify and streamline. While the flurry and fervor of medical meeting planning can be exhilarating, a precise approach is needed this year. The basics of effective communications – identifying metrics up front, planning to reach your audience and compelling content – are what will define success in 2020.

Holly Hitchen is Senior Vice President, Y&R PR.