You may need public relations more than you think

In plastic surgery, dermatology, ophthalmology, and now even dentistry, there are practitioners whose names have become synonymous with their particular specialties. Have these physicians reinvented the wheel or discovered the fountain of youth to warrant such acclaim? No—they have simply hired skilled public relations (PR) firms with solid media connections.

Many physicians who would like to explore the prospect of engaging a PR firm think that if they are not located in big cities such as Los Angeles, Miami, New York, or Chicago, their PR efforts will prove fruitless. Actually, the opposite is true. Writers and others in the media want to draw experts from a cross-section of cities. In the same vein, some suburban physicians think that prospective patients prefer consultations with their big-city counterparts.

The exposure from PR will probably not lure a city resident to the suburbs, but PR can prevent the suburban physician’s patient population from straying to the city, thus winning the biggest battle faced by suburban physicians. Media exposure can serve to assure the suburban patient of a high standard of care close to home, and even send the message that a “medical star” practices in his or her own hometown.

Public Relations and Ethics

Some physicians encounter a moral dilemma concerning practice promotion: They may question the ethics of hiring a PR firm. Others still naïvely believe that “the surgery will speak for itself.” Times have changed, and medicine has indeed become a business. It is a reality that prospective patients give more credence to a write-up in Vogue or Allure than they do a physician’s training or authorship of scholarly papers.

If you should decide to engage a PR firm, how can you keep your ethics intact? Recently, The New York Times’ Style Desk section featured an article that disparaged plastic surgeons who gave free procedures to beauty editors of magazines in exchange for editorial coverage.1 Not only is this an ill-advised practice, it is bartering and therefore violates the code of ethics of many medical societies.

Physicians who do use PR must remember not to compromise their ethics in the quest for media coverage. This means steering clear of media outlets that are inappropriate because of their content or editorial slant, conducting oneself appropriately with the media, and not compromising philosophical beliefs to satisfy an editor or a particular story. Ethical conduct also entails including appropriate qualifying comments when advocating a new procedure or technique until long-term efficacy has been established.

The stakes in elective medicine have been raised, and even the most conservative surgeons know that they have to change with the times or risk an empty waiting room. Advertising was the first phase in the evolution of practice promotion. Savvy practitioners soon realized that advertising might serve only to maintain the practice’s status quo and would not take it to the next level. Physicians who wanted to attract upper-income patients began to think that advertising did not reach their target patient. The reality is that people with disposable income for elective procedures typically find their physicians through referrals or editorial coverage, not advertisements.

Enter public relations. By mastering the patterns of media impact and the rudiments of PR, physicians can make the media a useful practice tool.

Understanding a Good PR Angle

It is important to remember that the following are not the types of consumer media stories that a client can expect a publicist to promote successfully:

• Dr Smith is double board-certified and a magna cum laude graduate.

• Dr Smith is adding a new physician to his practice.

• Dr Smith’s office looks like something out of Architectural Digest.

• Dr Smith does the most natural-looking facelift and has a caring and compassionate staff.

• Dr Smith’s office is in the suburbs, but his practice offers the same amenities as one in the city, with lower prices.

If you are only intent on communicating messages such as these, buy an ad, because—to put it bluntly—the media do not care.

What do the media care about, and what types of stories will they respond to? The answer: stories that have inherent value for your current or potential patient. They want to write about or broadcast what’s new, what’s different. The task of a publicist is to put a new spin on what may be an old topic so that the media, and in turn the consumer, says, “That’s news I can use.”

Doing PR on Your Own

What if you desire promotion but you don’t need or can’t afford a full-scale campaign? What techniques can you use on your own, or with some assistance from a local freelance PR professional? Here are a some to consider:

• Purchase lists of health and beauty editors, and producers, from services like Bacon’s2 or BurrellesLuce.3

• Email your curriculum vitae (CV) to the local media, and link it to your Web site. Make clear that you would be a good source for interviews. Cite any new, innovative techniques you are implementing.

• Keep all of your press clippings, and add them to a “see us in the media” section on your Web site. Frame these clippings, and hang them in your waiting room. This always has a positive impact on prospective patients.

• If you perform pro bono or volunteer work, let the media know. These activities almost always make for good human-interest pieces.

• If you would like media training to prepare for press coverage, contact the Public Relations Society of America4 and ask for local experts. Sometimes even a few hours of training go a long way toward a polished image.

• Network with hair salons, gyms, day spas, and aesthetic dentists. All of these professionals are good means of cross-referral.

• Pay attention to what the media are covering, as well as the latest trends, and offer commentary to the media. Stories that tie in to holidays, trends, or seasons are more likely to gain attention than those of a general nature.

• Always have a press kit ready. It should include a CV, a head shot, press clippings, a photo of your office, and a selection of before-and-after photos.

• Web sites are vital today, and they need not be expensive. Find a good Web designer by looking at other medical Web sites and then emailing the Webmasters of those you find appealing.

• When speaking with the media, do not have your own agenda. The media operate on tight deadlines and are seeking good sound bites in response their specific questions. Do not be professorial with your answers; instead, tailor your comments to the consumer.

• Keep a good archive of before-and-after photos. Many journalists depend on you to provide this material for their media stories.

Finding a Good PR Firm

If you decide to launch a major campaign, you should hire a PR firm or freelance professional that is compatible with your personality and that of your practice. Here are some tips for interviewing a prospective consultant:

• Ask for examples of successful campaign tactics.

• Request examples of print and media coverage for other medical clients.

• Assess the person’s knowledge of medical terminology.

• Get a reasonable estimate of frequency of media coverage.

• Know the markets that will be pursued, and make sure that they are practice-appropriate.

• Ask for samples of press releases written for other clients.

• Get references.

• Know the account executive-to-client ratio and how much time will be devoted to your account per week or month.

• Ask if there are any additional expenses, such as monthly disbursements.

• Make sure that the PR firm will provide weekly written progress reports.

• Ask for a written proposal that will outline a campaign strategy and explain company policies.

Starting the PR Campaign

As you begin your PR efforts, several situations or problems will arise that you will need to know how to handle. Here are some questions that physicians often ask:

I’m considering hiring a PR agency to help me plan a grand opening for my new practice. How many months in advance should I hire one?

That depends upon the scale of your grand opening. If you want the firm to do only local publicity, you should plan 3 months in advance. If you want it to send invitations and help with all aspects of the event, you ought to allow yourself a good 6-month window to make sure everything is discussed in advance and a realistic schedule is set.

I want to hire a PR professional, but I am only comfortable doing so on a month-to-month basis. I’m told PR doesn’t work this way. Is that true?

Yes, it’s generally true. PR is rarely a quick fix, and it works best when it’s part of a consistent program. It often takes several weeks or months to determine your messages and put together a cohesive media plan. After that, even placing the story can take time because of deadlines, media commitments, and coordination. The media receive such a daily influx of information that it often takes weeks or months for your story to appear. Here are the steps you should take:

• Set realistic goals, prioritize them, and discuss them with your publicist.

• Identify the media outlets—print and broadcast—that you wish to approach.

• Identify the surgical procedures that would interest he media be the most.

• Determine the tools you are going to use to get the media interested in your story (for example, press releases, and photos).

• Track and evaluate the results.

Is it realistic for PR people to promise articles in magazines like Vogue or appearances on popular television shows like The Oprah Winfrey Show?

Rule number one in publicity is that there are no guarantees. Reporters and producers are ethical, and they rarely write articles for national magazines or place people on television shows based on favors. Stories are placed on the basis of how newsworthy they are and whether they will have popular appeal. Be cautious of any PR person who makes grand promises.

The last firm I hired didn’t seem to have any idea of what stories to pitch for me. I thought I was hiring professionals who would know how to approach the media, but it seemed as though they wanted me to do all the work. Is this normal?

In the beginning of any PR relationship, a plan of action must be formulated. This is a responsibility that must be shared by the client and the PR person or firm. The goals must reflect the overall direction of your practice. Unfortunately, you alone know what those goals are.

I understand that you felt as though you were doing all the work; however, those of us that have been practicing PR for many years still believe that every client is unique and that every message is individual. In the early days of the campaign, you must work closely with your PR person to make sure that once you have determined your message, it is conveyed loud and clear. Com­munication is a two-way street, and you must communicate to guarantee success.

Many physicians wonder why they simply cannot write their own press releases or have their office managers function in a dual capacity as PR pro. When physicians attempt this strategy, it often ends negatively or simply takes time away from practicing medicine. Physicians must understand that editors of consumer media are not interested in painstakingly technical depictions of techniques that would be more appropriate for a medical journal, nor are they interested in press releases that are entirely self-promotional. The medical jargon must be translated and presented in a way that is palatable for laypeople, and writers and producers are indeed laypeople.

Developing connections with the media is a full-time job. Only PR firms have the time to solidify connections with the press so that they are recognized as key sources of medical or health care stories.

After the Campaign Gets Going

Advertising typically uses a media-blitz strategy. The same tactic cannot be used for promoting a physician or a practice via PR. You have to give your PR efforts time to produce results. If a new medical procedure is being promoted via a PR campaign, it will face scrutiny by the media. It takes time to build credibility, so start with smaller media outlets to gain the attention of larger ones, such as the national newspaper USA Today or national television networks.

As a PR client, you need to allow sufficient time to let the editors be influenced by what they see, read, or hear in other media. As a case in point, one of our clients requested that we introduce the controversial European technique mesotherapy, which “melts” body fat via injections. Although the story was and is quite sensational, it took time to win over editors and get them to believe in the procedure. By 1 year later, this client had appeared on Today, CNN, and virtually every New York-area network affiliate; and she was featured in magazines such as Marie Claire and Elle. The client has been swamped with new patients and has been able to raise her fees.

Before writing an article about a medical procedure, a reporter will often use the Internet to see which other media outlets have covered it. One positive media endorsement will usually beget another. After a slow publicity buildup, potential patients become convinced that they have heard about and believed in you forever.

This is because prospective patients do not perceive any coercion in an editorial message. They think that the media are simply being helpful by alerting them to a new medical technique or procedure. Although most physicians would say, “My publicist is launching my PR campaign,” you really need to see it as a series of events that are unfolding over a period of time.

How can I tell if my PR program is working?

The key to measuring whether or not your program is working is to establish clear guidelines early in the client–agency relationship. This includes goal-setting, anticipated media events, key programs within your practice that you wish to publicize, and areas of special interest to you. Your agency should report regularly on its activity so that you can be reassured that it is working on your behalf and is meeting your goals.

PR firms cannot be held responsible for return on investment. A PR firm has met its responsibility if it has secured consistent and high-quality media coverage for a client. Some media coverage will have an immediate, quantifiable impact in terms of new patients, and other coverage will simply heighten awareness of your practice. Both outcomes enhance a physician’s reputation.

Potential Difficulties

Once a surgeon has decided to use PR, it can often be difficult to find a good firm. The task is made even harder because many physicians are reluctant to admit to their peers or friends that they are trying to find a publicist. This closes off the avenue to recommendations and referrals, which are the best ways to find a satisfactory firm.

Many physicians do get “burned” by PR firms. This usually occurs because the physician has engaged an individual or corporation with little or no expertise in medical or health care PR, which is an entirely different niche from fashion, entertainment, dining, or corporate PR. Just as a patient would not see a cardiologist for plastic surgery, it is unwise to engage a firm that has not worked with physicians.

It is of paramount importance that publicists be able to speak a surgeon’s language. If the physician has to explain follicular unit grafts, follicular family unit grafts, or micrografts, valuable time will be taken away from the campaign. In addition, while one firm may do an outstanding job representing a restaurant, the same media contacts are not used to represent a physician.

Physicians who seek PR on a national level will likely have better success with a firm based in New York City. (The PR firm need not be located in the same city as its clients.) The majority of key media outlets are in New York City, and a PR firm located there can more easily facilitate personal contacts with Manhattan editors and producers. Such alliances will undoubtedly be fruitful for clients.

As with advertising, there are no guarantees that media exposure will translate into additional patients. A PR firm should be able to give a prospective medical client some idea of what he or she can expect in terms of media outlets to be pursued, continuity of exposure, number of hours devoted weekly to the client, and campaign strategies. It should also be agreed that the physician can decline any media opportunity that he or she is uncomfortable about pursuing.

Physicians must be mindful that PR is a cumulative process. Its merits cannot be assessed from one television appearance or magazine article. PR is not a magical process. Those who use it must be willing to be active participants and respond to media queries in a timely manner, with before-and-after pictures or statistical evidence if necessary.

PR, when implemented ethically and effectively, can truly help a practice gain an edge in competitive markets. It can often make the difference between the practice remaining a secret and having a full surgery schedule. Physicians who elect to go this route must keep their egos in check and adhere to the Hippocratic Oath.

Is there a downside to public relations? Yes. Physicians just might become addicted to their newly found fame. PSP

Katherine M. Rothman is the CEO of KMR Communications Inc, a Manhattan PR firm that specializes in representing physicians, medical groups, and hospitals nationwide. KMR was named by PR Week as one of the nation’s top 50 health care PR firms. Roth-man is a frequent commentator and lecturer on the topic of physicians and PR. She has been featured in media such as CNN, The Wall Street Journal, and Palm Beach Post. She can be reached at (212) 213-6444 or her Web site,


1. Jarrell A. Doctors who love publicity. The New York Times. July 2, 2005: 9, 1.

2. Bacon’s MediaSource™. Available at: Accessed August 9, 2005.

3. BurellesLuce. Available at: Accessed August 9, 2005.

4. Public Relations Society of America. Available at: Accessed August 9, 2005.