Why Storytelling Matters for Pharma: A Q&A with Ryan Flinn
Ryan Flinn’s official title at Johnson & Johnson is Innovation Integration Communications Leader, but it might as well be “storyteller.” Flinn, a long-time journalist who has written hundreds of stories about biotech and pharma over the course of his media career, in June took on a critical role of engaging the world with J&J Innovationss stories of science, discovery and patient impact. We sat down with Flinn to learn more about his background in journalism, his role at J&J and why storytelling is imperative for scientists.
Did you always know you wanted to be a journalist?
What I really wanted to be the was the next great novelist, the next Hemingway. I spent a lot of time writing fiction in college at Holy Cross while I was earning a major in Classics. My friend was an editor at the student newspaper, and at that time there was a lot of discussion about Dolly the Sheep and cloning—generally, there was a lot of fear. My friend heard what I had to say about it and encouraged me to write an op-ed. It was controversial because it was a pro-cloning column about the possible health benefits of creating organs that can help people. My piece got a lot of pushback. I would walk into a class and people would be like, “Oh, there’s the cloning guy.” But it was a light bulb for me. I realized I could write something and get a reaction from people.
You began working as a business journalist right after college. What were some of the lessons you learned in your early newspaper days?
After I left college, I spent three years at The Hour newspaper in Connecticut as a reporter and business editor. That taught me a lot about how to tell stories. Rather than do the play-by-play business coverage, I liked to look at the motivations, the feelings, the perspectives of my subjects—that made for much better stories. I feel like I my main skill as a journalist was that I could go anyplace and talk to anyone and leave with a story that’s never been told before. It also gave me the opportunity to freelance for the New York Times’ Connecticut section. When 9/11 happened, my boss was on a trip and I had the opportunity to lead our coverage. It was an eye-opening experience, one of those things you never forget.
After you moved to San Francisco in 2006, you joined Bloomberg, eventually becoming the biotech reporter. What was it like to cover biotech exclusively for the first time?
I was just sort of thrown into it and I loved it. Of course, I was also having night sweats about it. When you cover an industry at Bloomberg, you’re responsible for the earnings, the corporate news, everything. If you miss something important, you’ll be held accountable. But I felt like my stories mattered. I was talking to scientists and patients and biotech companies, finding stories about people trying to cure cancer or find treatments for rare diseases. I would write about something and two years later, I would have someone track me down because they saw a story I wrote about a new drug being developed for a disease.
How did your journalism skills carry over into the public relations world?
I joined a PR agency after Bloomberg, and I had the chance to work with a lot of different clients across the life science industry. Given how important social media has become for communications, I tried to instill in these companies the need to create really great content. This isn’t easy because we’re dealing with scientists who are very data driven. They want to put the data out there and have it speak for itself—and that is a noble thing. But if you want people to emotionally invest in what you’re working on, you have to be able to tell a good story. If people aren’t engaged, it can be hard to get funding or win over the hearts and minds of patients and industry leaders. It’s vital for this industry.
What appealed to you most about joining the team at J&J?
I still think like a journalist. I like to find really interesting story angles that capture the reader’s interest from the start, and then keep them reading until the end. There’s an overwhelming amount of content out there and it’s hard to get people to read a press release or corporate news story anymore. J&J had a very open mind about all of this, and the people I talked to were excited to have me come on board and apply my background to tell the stories about our scientists, our investments and our JLABS resident companies. For me, it’s an opportunity to put in place everything that I’ve been advocating.
How do you spend your free time?
It’s hard to find time for myself with three kids and a busy job! I was a competitive swimmer in high school and college, and I’ve been getting back into swimming recently. I’ve also done several half-marathons—I ran the New York City Marathon in 2005 – although after herniating a disc on Labor Day I’m on a forced break from working out. I love exploring wineries and new bottles of wine; I used to get to write about wineries at Bloomberg. My daughter, who’s 9, is autistic, and my wife and I also spend a lot of our time advocating for people like her and educating others about the research and therapies out there. I also have two sons, ages 5 and 7, that are very active and keep me busy.
Can you give us a sneak peek into one of the coolest stories you’ve uncovered recently?
At our JLABS in Houston (JLABS @ TMC) there’s a company called Oncomfort Inc. that was started by a woman who hails from the tech gaming world. She used to make entertainment games, but she started to feel like her work wasn’t as meaningful as it could be, and she decided to go into the healthcare space. She created a virtual reality game for kids who are getting chemo—the kids are riding in the bloodstream as they’re zapping the cancer cells as they’re receiving the chemotherapy. Research is showing that this game actually reduces pain because the kids are taking ownership over their treatment, they’re actively fighting their cancer. It’s an amazing story.