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'To do Thought Leadership effectively, you first need to have thoughts'
A guide to getting storytelling right from former PillPack Head of Communications Jacqui Miller
Everyone is a thought leader these days. But very few people are effective at it.
I’ve been outspoken in this newsletter about what I think is broken about the communications function at most companies. It has become highly outsourced, which dilutes the impact of the story and its reach. And CEOs/founders often have highly unrealistic expectations for their comms teams.
As Jacqui Miller, a comms pro in digital health I’ve known for years, summarizes it: It’s a whole lot of “get me on the cover of Forbes.” And not a lot of being interesting enough to warrant being on the cover of Forbes.
But when done well, communications can be a huge competitive advantage for startups. Before I left journalism, I got into the habit of noting down every time I met a charismatic founder who truly cared about storytelling. After a while, I realized that these founders were having outsized success compared to their more humdrum peers. Storytelling done right can be like pouring fuel into a fire - and there’s plenty of research to back that up.
So who’s doing storytelling well these days and what can we learn from them? One team that has always stood out to me is PillPack, which sold to Amazon for about $1 billion in 2018. That particular exit fascinated me at the time, as there were quite a few companies doing similar things in the pharmacy space. But many of them failed while PillPack hit it big with a sale.
No doubt it made a big difference that the company had a major focus on communications from Day One. Jacqui, who has worked at startups and big companies alike, simply “got it” and she was always straight forward with me. She worked at PillPack in the very early days, before making the leap to Google, and then returning to PillPack once it reached a new phase of growth.
We had a few extended calls in recent weeks on this topic so I thought I’d share a few of her thoughts with you. Plus we could all use some of that storytelling fuel now more than ever. The beauty of it is that you don’t need a big budget to do it well.
Diving into Thought Leadership
Let’s start with thought leadership, which I believe is worth the investment when done right. Sorry folks, but that doesn’t mean asking ChatGPT to write an essay for you and publishing it on a personal blog. And it doesn’t mean hiring a ghostwriter to form opinions on your behalf. I’m particularly wary of that, which I’ll share more about later.
What it means is standing up for what you believe in and having the conviction and courage to do that throughout your company’s journey. Through both the good times and the bad. And it means listening, as well as having something differentiated to say.
As Jacqui puts it:
“To do thought leadership, you actually need to have thoughts.”
In practical terms, here’s the Jacqui Miller test for determining whether to work with a founder. Now that she’s a free agent, she is contemplating asking founders that want to work with her to send a sample week of their diary with the confidential stuff blocked out. What she’s looking to understand is if every hour of the day is occupied with a constant drumbeat of meetings. For these CEOs, it’s a nonstop treadmill of planning, projects and putting out fires.
In her view, too many CEOs fill up their entire day. And as a result, there’s no time to think, beyond the most immediate tasks. But to do communications and thought leadership effectively, you must be able to form opinions (and constantly evolve them) about the state of the world and the industry you’re in.
Some of the best founders I know understand this deeply. They do things like wake up early in the morning and allocate the first hour of their day to read. Not work emails. But news and analysis about their industry. I know a handful that write internal newsletters for their teams on topics that are relevant to their company, both directly and indirectly. I personally love that because writing is thinking.
Others I know will set aside time for check-ins with people that don’t serve an immediate business purpose but are important for learning and relationship building. I won’t share names publicly but when I was at CNBC, I’d get spontaneous calls from a select few founders just to chit chat. There was no pitch involved. It was purely about sharing information and ideas (“Why do you think digital therapeutics companies keep failing”? Seen anything interesting in the obesity space?”) And it couldn’t hurt, of course, for them to be top of mind when I’d have a story and needed someone to talk to about it. Or better yet, if I wanted to commission an opinion piece on a specific topic. There were a few founders that I knew would always be up for the task.
All of this bleeds into media relations, too. Which doesn’t just mean pitching self-serving stories, by the way.
Jacqui recalls that in the early days of PillPack, her CEO - TJ Parker - would take a lot of walks as the office was based near a bike path. That afforded him time to think or to make an unscheduled call. And when they would receive a particularly thorny or interesting question from a reporter about the pharmacy sector, they’d sit down somewhere and talk about it for 45 minutes or so. Sometimes longer if needed. Then they’d respond, often with a detailed answer.
“One thing I really appreciated about TJ (Parker), is that he had chunks of the day that were unscheduled and unstructured,” she said. “So I could grab him and we could have a conversation and figure out what we believed.”
Parker, for his part, told me he’d schedule a maximum of two to three hours of meetings per day very intentionally. “The rest of the time was wandering and riffing, or driving up to New Hampshire to walk the pharmacy,” he told me. “Inadvertently I think it also made everyone on the team feel like I had time to talk through anything anytime vs having to jockey for time on my calendar.”
This is a very different model by the way than outsourcing all storytelling. For a lot of companies, that involves someone else taking ideas to the press and drafting responses to questions from CEOs that the CEOs often don’t even see. Or even worse, hiring someone to decide what thoughts a CEO should have (often resulting in very generic ones like ‘AI is going to transform health care,’ which we’ve all been saying ad nauseam for about 15 years) At best, it’s just a collection of recent research and some lofty paragraph-long quotes. Most of the time, there are zero actual opinions. Which makes sense, because it’s hard to manufacturer opinions for someone else.
Which brings me to Jacqui’s next point.
For communications to really fly, it may often make more sense to think of the function as separate from marketing.
Rethinking the org chart
Founders should at the very least consider an alternative to the Head of Communications reporting into the Head of Marketing.
These roles are different. Marketing is at its core about garnering attention from one or multiple customer segments to sell more stuff. If communications is a part of that mission, then communications strategy will be centered entirely around that. It will be about getting press for one-off promotional moments, like a venture capital fundraise or an award or some kind or partnership. The stuff that (trust me, I know) is not what most people want to read about.
Don’t believe me? Ask yourself this question. Unless you had a strong business reason for caring, how much time do you allocate per day to reading press releases about some company you’ve never heard of getting an award or being named the leader of a category they made up? Probably very little. Meanwhile, how about an article about a consolidation trend in a hospital system or a patient getting a medical bill that drove them into bankruptcy? That you might read about if you’re in health care. And if you saw someone in the industry providing commentary in a piece like that, it might elevate your impression of that person - and by association, the company they represent.
So if the communications team is allowed to sit elsewhere, perhaps even floating between legal, HR, government relations and the CEO, it can support a lot of other functions in the org. And it can be part of a much bigger mission. Beyond selling stuff, great storytelling can be useful in recruiting talent and in building a brand for a CEO (assuming, to my earlier point, they have actual thoughts and a desire to share them). But it can also reinforce why the company needs to exist, even as it grows. And it can even help make the world a better place by being a tool not just for self-promotion.
Jacqui thinks that’s even more important as a rule of thumb for health care companies, because of the “complexity and number of non customer stakeholders that need to be in the periphery.” If you’re in the pharmacy space, that might include pharmacies of all shapes and sizes, pharmacy benefits managers, patients, caregivers, health plans, health systems and so on. It’s different than, say, a consumer products brand with seasonal product drops (in that case, it might make a lot more sense to keep communications and marketing in the same organization). But for a health care company, someone needs to be aware of a much broader set of audiences, inclusive and not inclusive of those that generate revenue.
Aligning with journalism
Let’s take PillPack, Jacqui’s former company, which had a mission to make it easier for people to get medicines at home. There were many structural barriers to that, including pharmacy benefits managers that own their own mail order pharmacies and might not want the competition. So it’s a challenge, trying to both integrate with the health care system and to make it better.
A communications team, in that case, might find themselves more aligned with media than not. Journalists are typically looking to uncover or unearth some deeper truth about the world. So, if you’re a founder who wants to disrupt a broken process, why couldn’t you (and/or your Head of Comms) develop a relationship with a journalist who wants to shine a light? If communications sits outside of marketing, there may be a lot more opportunities to do that.
“If you’re a startup founder, you should be talking about the change you want to make in the world,” Jacqui explained. “And that might include things your company is doing well, but it might also include shining a light on the bad actors.”
If communications is just about marketing, the pitch and press release might seem very self serving. It essentially amounts to: “This company and this CEO are great, and we’re all thrilled to be here.” Plus here’s a bunch of jargon that sounds good but no one understands.
For most journalists, that’s a firm ‘not today, no thanks.’
What Jacqui and her CEO would do instead is read. Their space was pharmacy, so they’d go deep on that topic. When they would see a particularly smart or thoughtful piece, they’d reach out to the reporter who wrote it.
“Often, if it were me emailing, I’d tell them what I liked about the piece and I’d let them know that I’d spent a ton of time learning about pharmacy and would be happy to be a resource or sounding board,” she said. For her, it wasn’t about trying to get something out of the reporter, but instead to see if they could learn from each other.
Speaking from personal experience, receiving those emails was like a breath of fresh air. Every morning, I’d delete the 1,000+ mailmerged pitches that were very anonymous and impersonal. Sometimes they’d get my name or publication wrong. But I would respond though to the one or two emails where someone authentically seemed to want to get to know me and help me understand a segment of health care. For reporters, it’s very important to have those people around you. Everything you say and write is public, so you don’t want to ever come across as ill informed. But if you only hear half truths (or even outright fabrications), then it’s very challenging to communicate complicated things effectively. And you’ll get judged harshly for that.
I’ll leave you with a golden rule.
To be great at communications and storytelling means having empathy for your audience. It’s not just about what you want. It’s also about what they want. So if you’re doing media relations, consider that most journalists want to learn because the business they’re in is about having access to information. From that perspective, you can understand why an email from someone who genuinely cared and wanted to be a resource would go over well.
Of course, this isn’t true only of journalists. It’s true across every aspect of business. I can’t stress enough that listening more than talking is such a great rule of thumb! The best thought leaders and storytellers spend a lot more time absorbing information than pontificating on stage.
Well, that’s all folks. I hope you’ve enjoyed and learned something from this installment. As an aside, I’m hoping to spread the word about more brilliant humans in digital health from all walks of life. As always, I’m reachable on LinkedIn and @Chrissyfarr on Twitter. Happy Monday!