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March 17, 2022 // Michelle Webb // Opinion  //       //  Opinion

Lessons from SXSW: Showing Up Unexpectedly to Ensure Health Companies Break Through

In today’s media environment, health companies face an increasingly uphill battle in the fight for attention and coverage. This dynamic is largely due to a renewed focus on health due to the COVID-19 pandemic, in addition to the overwhelming demand for new technologies and more integrated health business models (whether you are a health company or not).

To understand just how steep the climb will be, look no further than the healthcare investment space. A favorite annual resource of mine, Silicon Valley Bank’s (SVB) Healthcare Investments and Exits Report, recently published 2021 numbers on investment trends and the results are eye-opening.

SVB found investment into health companies exceeded $86 billion, beating 2020’s record by more than 30%. Every sector – from diagnostics to B2B tech to biotech – hit record highs, punctuated by a 157% increase in health tech investment compared with 2020. With that, all signs point to a flurry of activity, hundreds of new entrants, billions in new capital, and extreme competition for eyes and ears in the deal-crazed year ahead.

Anecdotally, we know journalists now cover the space very differently. On the tech, startup and VC side, reporters are completely overwhelmed by the amount of investment being deployed and the volume of deals. Some outlets and reporters have restricted their coverage of funding rounds and others have focused on value and analysis of deal-making. At Crunchbase, editor Marlize van Rombergh captured new ways the outlet will cover the startup world because “there are simply too many deals and dollars to write about.” Meanwhile, those assigned to the COVID-19 beats are understandably burnt out, staff reductions have put increasing pressure on newsrooms and many are leaving the industry altogether.

How can we as communications professionals support our health clients in this highly competitive space amid a still unrelenting pandemic news cycle? Put simply, we need to unearth the bigger, more provocative and more unusual stories that may exist well-beyond the health and medical beat, outside the trade shows, and into places that add richness and layers to a story that might otherwise remain in an echo chamber.

For instance, my team has worked closely with an emerging biotech client that’s been swept into the national spotlight due to its work in the COVID-19 space. Like many companies, its brand is constantly swept into the pandemic narratives, usually out of its control and leaving it little opportunity to steer the narrative and even less to engage proactively with media. Together, we decided to dig deeper on storylines that could showcase this brand in a new light and well beyond the pandemic. 

We identified 2022 event opportunities and were particularly excited about showing up unexpectedly at SXSW and throwing out the playbook when it came to positioning a health brand at this major tech- and startup-driven event. That meant standing our ground when it came to programming – pitching a session well outside the traditional health and medtech track, putting them outside their beat, beyond the usual suspects, and instead grouped with disruptors, entrepreneurs, accelerators and successful “pivoters.” 

Rather than a deep dive on health or science, we worked closely with our client to tell a compelling business story – how did such a small company make such a significant leap at a rapid clip and how did this transformation impact the business, culture, workforce and go-to-market strategy? We encouraged event teams to schedule the session in non-traditional tracks targeted to entrepreneurs, startups, and workplace and culture enthusiasts. 

The result was a remarkable business story about the pandemic’s impact from the inside out to a completely new audience-- and as if by design, completely unexpected. The panel showcased real challenges and lessons learned from a seemingly overnight scale-up: exponential growth and retention of a workforce amid an already diminished talent pool; cultivation of strong company culture in an extremely high-pressure organization; commercialization of first-ever products, not just in the U.S. but globally; and the complete overhaul of decision-making that required a re-tooling of business processes and structure. 

Most importantly, the session did not position this company as an anomaly, but rather offered relevant and tangible advice for companies of any size as they go through their own challenges of scale – a key value-add for so many attendees of SXSW that is rarely told by health brands. 

Put simply, we know now is a challenging time. But it’s also an incredible time to rethink the way we tell stories in new and unexpected ways.

Michelle Webb leads the Health Practice and is a seasoned health strategy expert with extensive experience in strategic communications and corporate strategy for health companies. 






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