Fruitful and enduring KOL (key opinion leader) relationships – so pivotal to the success of many healthcare communications ventures – rely on a continuum of trust, transparency and mutual respect. The way you communicate with your KOLs at this critical time could have lasting consequences. To keep these relationships flourishing – and even strengthen them – take note of these five tips:


Since the majority of KOLs in the healthcare space are clinicians, their level of personal stress and risk during a global pandemic transcends the norm. Public appreciation for the ‘heroism’ of healthcare professionals is palpable. Whatever their discipline, your KOLs may be deployed on the frontline or be close colleagues of those who are. Demonstrating humanity, sensitivity and empathy beyond the standard expressions of concern for safety and wellbeing is called for at the start of every communication and ideally at the end too.


You’ll need to inform your KOLs as soon as possible about changed, postponed or cancelled activities. Disruption to 2020 congress activity and face-to-face events of all kinds aren’t the only activities that will suffer; the crisis may be causing you to re-evaluate your priorities, your timelines and your budgets with the result that projects involving KOLs may be shelved, modified or put on hold. Be as transparent as you can – not only about definite decisions but also about likely ones. Your KOLs should be made to feel like partners in an ongoing shared mission, not merely contractors.


Truly effective KOL engagement involves ongoing dialogue and consultation on strategic direction and high-level planning. As well as communicating your own decisions and dilemmas in the light of the crisis, ask them their views. Assess their reactions, request their advice, seek their impressions, invite their predictions, encourage their own questions  Now is a prime opportunity to demonstrate your collaborative spirit and openness. New ideas and opportunities may present themselves for how to adapt or re-purpose activities rather than ditch them. 


Whether or not you change the timing or format of your activities, some KOLs will no longer be able to commit. They may not have the headspace or the bandwidth and – even once the crisis begins to subside – they will be bracing themselves for the backlog of their usual clinical caseload. Those who feel obliged to back out will probably do so regretfully, fearing the loss of longer-term opportunities. They must not feel discarded or dispensable. As Maya Angelou famously said: ‘People will forget what you said and forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel’. Even though you may need to find a short-term replacement, make your long-term commitment to your original KOL crystal clear.


At such a momentous time, your tone and choice of words in both written and verbal communication is as important as your sentiments. It’s so easy to sound platitudinous, melodramatic, inappropriately upbeat or overly intrusive. For those at the frontline, don’t say you understand how they must be feeling. You probably don’t. Be human, show warmth but don’t suddenly reinvent yourself as a personal friend. To strike the right note, experiment with words and test them out with colleagues. What you say now and how you say it could be especially memorable to those on the receiving end.



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