You pay for advertising, but you pray for publicity

As competition for more patients drives advertising costs up, many aesthetic plastic surgeons are considering public relations (PR) as an alternative or adjunct to their practice-promotion efforts. Plastic surgery’s popularity on reality television makes media opportunities look readily available. Most aesthetic plastic surgeons appreciate that it is necessary to promote their practices, but they are now asking, “Which is the most cost-efficient method of promotion?”

The medium that you choose for PR visibility determines how you proceed. Your typical PR media options are print, radio, and television. Internet PR is also becoming a popular alternative and will be addressed in a future article. To take advantage of the conventional PR opportunities, the following key questions should be answered:

• Do you understand the objectives of your PR activities?

• Will you need outside assistance?

• What does PR cost?

• Are there specific requirements for different types of media?

• Do you have the components, such as a trained staff and an attractive Web site, in place to get the best results from your efforts?

Before proceeding with PR, you must accept that there are no guarantees! You can do everything right and still not achieve all of the results you desire. Therefore, you must appreciate the realities and limitations of using PR.


Goals and Needs

What are your goals from PR? This is the most important question to answer. If you see PR as an end in itself—meaning that, after you have done all that is necessary and you get the exposure you desire, you will be in great demand by patients—then you may be very disappointed. Your goal should be to generate inquiries to your office, which your staff can turn into appointments or prospects to enter into your internal communication and notification programs.

Do you need outside assistance? If you have ample staff with the time and knowledge to work with the media, then you can stay in-house. If not, you will need to hire outside help to keep you in the media eye.

You will need to set aside a budget. An enormous amount of time and personnel costs are needed to keep your name in front of the media so that you are at the top of the list when the media need someone for commentary or interviews.


PR for Print Media

For print media, the most effective way to obtain PR visibility is the press release. It gives you an opportunity to provide specific information about a newsworthy event or activity to be published about you or your practice. It also informs the print media about the benefits of developing a relationship with you or your practice for more in-depth stories.

You must have a writer, preferably a professional who is experienced in press releases. There is a specific formula for writing press releases. First, you need to have something newsworthy to say. Then, you must address the standard journalistic questions: who, what, when, where, why, and how. The next consideration is brevity. It is always tempting to tell the whole story, but every inch of space in a print medium is precious. It is important that every word count; therefore, less is best.

Once you have written your press release, you have to get it inserted in publications. Depending on the timeliness of your information, you need to be sure that you submit your press release with as much lead time for the publisher as possible. Its subject matter will also determine its chances for insertion.

Once your press release is published, you must be prepared to respond to in-quiries from readers. Also, if and when representatives from the publication contact you for additional information, possibly for a news or feature story, you must be prepared to respond. Newspapers, especially, work on deadlines, so stories must be handled in an expeditious manner.


PR for Radio

Radio PR takes even more effort. However, a press release can also be the best method for opening the door to a relationship with local radio stations or specific radio personalities. By sending the press release, you provide an opportunity for the stations’ editorial staffs to obtain information about you. From there, they may contact you to obtain more information or to set up an interview that can be used on specific programs on their stations.

You must do your homework and select stations with programming that is compatible with information about you, your specialty, or the topic of the press release. The chances of being interviewed on the radio are greatly improved if the press release “plays” to the stations’ programming.

It is also important to establish a relationship with the stations’ representatives. Contacting the station to determine who is in charge of setting up interview opportunities most often accomplishes this goal. Again, responsiveness is important. If the representative calls you to obtain a statement on a particular newsworthy item, you must be prepared to respond as quickly as possible.

There may also be opportunities for you to become the aesthetic services “authority” at a station. This can mean not only that persons from the station will call you when controversial issues arise, but also that they may develop a regular segment for you. In either case, you should take advantage of these opportunities for exposure.


PR for Television

Television, of course, is the most difficult medium to break into, so perseverance is the key to obtaining visibility. Often, the most effective way to obtain positive PR on television is to start with ad-vertising; this allows you to develop a relationship with the local television station. Again, you should do your homework to determine which local station has the programming that best matches your exposure goals. You certainly would want to avoid a station that would exploit you or make a mockery of plastic surgery.

After you have formed a relationship with the station’s advertising department sales representative, that person can often introduce you or your practice’s marketing person to the individuals in charge of programming for the station. It is then important to maintain a continued relationship with the programming staff. This may require a few lunches and meetings to keep them updated on your activities and accomplishments that could be newsworthy opportunities. Again, the opportunity to be the local authority is potentially the most positive result of your PR efforts.

Local newsworthy stories include being the first to perform a procedure or technique in your community, or performing a procedure on a local celebrity—such as an elected official, a local newsperson, or a prominent community member who is willing to “go public.”

If you are interested in national television exposure, you will
more than likely need the assistance of a professional PR firm with national experience. The major requirement for getting national coverage is a truly unique, newsworthy “hook.” Nationally newsworthy topics could be a special patient, an innovative procedure or technique, or a unique result from an established procedure or technique. Another newsworthy subject is your pro bono medical work.


Cash in on Your PR

Have your internal systems in place to maintain communications. Once you have developed the desired visibility, it is important to sustain it. This can be done most effectively by keeping in contact with patients and the prospective patient contacts you have developed.

In the past, the major way to maintain that contact was through newsletters and direct-mail programs. Now, you have the Internet, a more economical format with which to maintain contact. However, you will need more than your basic Web site to be most effective.

Several Internet communications options are available. You can use your Web site to keep your patients aware of your practice and special offers. Sending broadcast emails is now one of the most cost-efficient methods for maintaining communication with your patients of record. This is the alternative to direct mail. There are no printing, folding, stuffing, “licking and sticking,” or postage costs. The message is developed, then emailed to a group of patients using the “bcc,” or blind carbon copy, line. Email messages can be made more attractive and effective by adding graphics.

The online newsletter is another Internet communication option. You again save printing and mailing costs, and you can use all the graphics you want. The newsletter can be linked to your Web site (or to those broadcast emails) in a format such that it looks exactly like the print version and can be read online or printed by your patients.

No matter which PR method you select, you must first have two major elements in place—a confident and skilled staff and an effective Internet mechanism—to turn those responses into surgeries.

Greg Washington, Sr, is president and CEO of Patients Unlimited Marketing Consultants (PUMC), a marketing, advertising, Internet, and public relations firm in Los Angeles. He is one of the original marketing professionals for the aesthetic plastic surgery profession. Before he established PUMC in 1974, Washington spent almost a decade in the health care industry with Merck, IBM, and medical-practice management. His Web site is www.pumc.com.