Some Good PR

April 1, 2000
Getting people to like you - that`s what practice promotion is all about! Here are some ways to reach prospective patients.

Getting people to like you - that`s what practice promotion is all about! Here are some ways to reach prospective patients.

Cathy Hester Seckman, RDH

You know the scene. It`s the office staff meeting and you`re slouched in a chair, bored and fiddling with your Happy Tooth hair clip.

"We need something new around here," Doc says with a big sigh. "Something fresh and different that will make the patients sit up and take notice. We need something to bring in new people. Anyone have any ideas?"

It`s hair clip time for sure! You`re a hygienist, not a public relations expert. Why should you care about freshness? You frown and slouch a little lower. But wait - what`s that prickly feeling at the back of your neck? What is it that makes you suddenly sit up and clear your throat? What is it that forces you to open your mouth? Is that you saying, "Why don`t we start a No-Cavity Club?"

It must be conscience. That`s the explanation! You want to make points with the boss - earn that raise - so you play along. Or, maybe it`s guilt, and you`re thinking you really should do more for the patients. Either way, you give an inward groan as Doc perks right up.

"Now there`s a new idea!" he says brightly. "You mean putting the kids` pictures up on a board? Let`s hear all about it!"

Reluctantly, you explain. To your surprise, not only does the boss love it, the staff and the patients do, too. Before you know it, there`s an instant camera on the shelf, the kids are proud as peacocks, and even some of the adults want their pictures on the "No-Cavity" bulletin board.

"This public relations stuff is great," Doc says happily. "What are we going to do next?"

Using bulk mailing companies

Public relations is defined as "inducing the public to have understanding for, or goodwill toward, a person, firm, or institution." Get people to like you, in other words, and they will come.

One pair of dentists in East Northport, N.Y., turned to humor and entertainment to expand their patient base. Drs. Paul Silverman and Terri Silverman hired Val Pak, a bulk-mailing company that primarily does coupons for local businesses, to send a one-page newsletter designed to draw in new patients. One Word of Mouth Dentistry News included a back-to-school quiz that asked readers to identify "the material you remove from your teeth when you brush them for the first time in a year" (answer: Commemorative Plaque), and "the effect of gum disease on an elephant"(answer: Tuskaloosa).

At the end of the quiz, readers were invited to call for an appointment - "Free tutoring with treatment." A coupon was included on the page, good for a free examination and two free X-rays.

It costs about $12,000 a year for the mailings, and Dr. Paul Silverman reports it is money well spent. The coupons actually yield little response, he says, but the newsletters have been very effective. "About a quarter of our new patients come from the newsletters, and many of those have, in turn, referred other patients. Because the newsletters are different in tone than most professional advertisements, name recognition is increased. We`ve had patients come in and say they look forward to seeing the next letter in the mail. Local business people have asked me when they learn my name if I``m the one who writes those `funny dental letters` in Val Pak."

More than 90 percent of the Silvermans` patients live in the target area for Val Pak mailings, which go out to 60,000 homes eight times a year.

In the past, the Silvermans also have produced a four-page in-house newsletter for their existing patients. The front-page story in one spring edition described what to do if a tooth is knocked out during a ball game. It also included a farewell story on an assistant who was leaving the practice, a quiz with names of teeth as answers, and a hilarious description of such TV programs as "Gum Smoke" and "Halitosis 90210."

Newsletters aren`t the only way to draw in new people. When Dr. Lynn Halik, a pediatric dentist in Pittsford, N.Y., opened her practice, she asked the advice of her husband, Jeff Halik, public relations consultant with Saphar & Associates Inc.

"I counseled her on a variety of public relations tactics," Halik recalls, "free of charge, at that! A small practice is built on personality, and your efforts should be focused on allowing people to know you personally as much as they can. To launch Lynn`s practice, we made the longest list we could of people we knew. We sent hundreds of invitation postcards for an evening event with hors d`oeuvres and wine. Even if people couldn`t come, they had the card and knew who Lynn was."

The same principle works for hygienists, Halik believes. "My wife chose a hygienist who had worked in a previous practice and was popular in her own right. Some of the new patients that my wife acquired came because of her - because they were comfortable with her as a person."

Halik, whose father is Dr. Frederick Halik, a periodontists in Rochester, N.Y., does not believe dentists should invest in paid advertising. "My dad always said advertising is not the way to go. You can take out a half-page ad in the Yellow Pages, saying you`re the best, you`re painless, but what`s the point? Doesn`t every dentist have the same skills? What you need is one-on-one contact with people."

Halik suggests volunteering through a dental society to work in schools. "My wife goes to schools. The teachers know her. She talks to kids. They take home a little toothbrush or something. It`s a gentle introduction to dentistry, and to your practice in particular.

"Lynn was the chair of the children`s dental health effort one year, and she was interviewed in papers and on television. That was great for her. It`s not the primary way of getting new patients, but it`s a good thing nonetheless. Any dentist or hygienist can volunteer for that, and it all helps."

Joan Stewart of Saukville, Wis., a media relations consultant and editor of The Publicity Hound newsletter (, suggests ways to get your office`s name out to the public. One method is sending out press releases that are carefully timed. "Piggyback story ideas off holidays and anniversaries. For example, about three weeks before Halloween, pitch a story to editors and maybe even television on the five most damaging candies that kids with braces can eat. Before Valentine`s Day, pitch an idea about how harmful chocolate is to teeth."

Stewart also suggests writing how-to articles for newspapers and magazines. For example, "How to get your three-year-old to brush before bedtime" might work for a local parents` magazine or newsletter. You could carry that a step further and suggest a how-to program for local radio. Can`t you just imagine it? "Holly Hygienist, live at noon every Thursday. How do you get that toddler to like brushing? What can you do about receding gums? Call in to ask Holly about dental health, and hear tips on keeping your teeth for a lifetime."

Innovative ideas draw new patients into a practice. After they`ve come, what`s next? Public relations isn`t just for new people; it can be a useful tool to keep existing patients interested in and committed to your practice. One easy and common idea is to maintain a "No-Cavity Club" for children. All you need is an instant camera and a bulletin board. Every child who comes for a checkup and has no cavities will be thrilled to pose for the camera and see his or her photo posted on the board. Try to pose the kids in different places - i.e., in the waiting room, in the chair, digging through the toy box. Let one child put on a mask and gloves and sit on the operator`s stool. Have another one pose at the computer, making her six-month appointment. Put the bulletin board in the waiting room, where everyone can see it, and encourage the kids to look for their friends and classmates.

An idea that worked well in one of my offices was a stuffed animal contest. A giant stuffed animal, larger than many of our patients, was given a seat of honor in the waiting room. Every patient was entitled to one chance on the animal, and we held a drawing the first of every month. It was always a huge success. Patients talked about it in the grocery store, on the street, and in school. Winners had their pictures taken for the bulletin board, of course, and it was a mark of neighborhood success to win one of the cuddly prizes.

Poster giveaways are another incentive to keep patients happy about coming to the office. One dentist I worked for kept colorful posters tacked up all over the office. On the doors, on the ceilings, everywhere you looked, there were pictures of castles, puppies, snowboarders, and clowns. Every time someone admired a poster, Doc immediately pulled out the thumb tacks, rolled it up, and gave it to the surprised and grateful patient.

I used the posters as an incentive to get small children to talk to my dentist. He was a large man with a very loud voice, and he could seem intimidating.

"Doc will give you that poster to take home if you ask him for it," I would prod a timid five-year-old. "Go ahead," I`d say when it was time for the exam, "don`t you have something to ask him?" When the child mastered her fear long enough to ask for the poster, she discovered that Doc wasn`t such a scary guy after all!

Another prize idea is to reward your patients for bringing in referrals. The office of Dr. John Ornstil of San Francisco distributes movie passes to patients who refer new people. Coupons for fast food restaurants, tickets to a local fun park, or even discounts on dental work might also work as rewards.

Most of these public relations projects cost money - in some cases, large amounts of money. As a hygienist, you probably can`t make decisions to spend it, but you certainly can present your ideas. The boss might not be willing to spend thousands on bulk-mailed newsletters, but he might spring for a stack of posters or a four-foot green dinosaur, if you can convince him it`s a good idea. When he sees the smiles on the patients` faces and hears excited comments at the corner restaurant about his practice, he`ll consider it money well spent!

In the end, whether you spend money or not, any public relations project says the same thing to your patients: "We care about you. We`re not just interested in your teeth. We like you as a person, and we want to treat you well."

As Halik says, "Treat `em like gold. That`s where it`s at. The single best thing you can do to build a dental practice is to treat people right."

Cathy Hester Seckman, RDH, is a frequent contributor to RDH. She is based in Calcutta, Ohio.

Sample Press Release

Clean A. Tooth, DDS

"Quality Dentistry at Affordable Prices"

123 Main Street

Ourtown, OH 12345

Office: (111) 555-1234

Fax: (111) 555-5678

E-mail: [email protected]

May 1, 2000

Contact: Holly A. Hygienist, RDH (M-W-Th-F)

For Immediate Release With Art

OURTOWN, Ohio - Dr. Clean A. Tooth announces the purchase of a Super Deluxe XYZ Digital Panoramic System for his office at 123 Main St. Dr. Tooth installed the unit last month to provide his patients with the latest in safe, affordable diagnostics.

"Digital X-ray systems are an important advance in dentistry," Dr. Tooth said, "because they provide reduced X-ray exposure - up to 50 percent less. Our new system eliminates film-processing, provides real-time image display, and can enhance my diagnosis with features such as zoom, contrast, sharpening, and archiving."

Instead of waiting for developing time, patients will be able to see X-ray images of their teeth immediately on a monitor. The images can be altered on-screen to capture the best view. Dr. Tooth expects his patients will prefer this new imaging system over conventional X-rays, not only because of the reduced exposure, but because of the system`s improved versatility.

Dr. Tooth, who has practiced in Ourtown for 18 years, is the first dental office in the vicinity to use a digital X-ray system. An editorial in February`s Successful Dentist magazine predicted imaging systems will become the standard in private dental practices within 10 years. Dr. Tooth and his staff are proud to be in the forefront with this new technology, and remain committed to providing their patients with the best dentistry available.

- 30 -

Representatives from your publication (or station) are welcome to visit our office to see and experience the new XYZ system. If we can provide you with any additional information, please call. We look forward to hearing from you.

Elements of a good press release

Sending out a press release is like releasing a cast with your fly-fishing rod. You prepare the fly in the best way you know how; give it a good, strong cast; watch it land; and hope the trout bites! There are no guarantees with press releases or with fly-fishing. Neither the newspaper nor the trout is required to bite. It`s up to you to intrigue them into biting.

You must have a concrete reason for bothering a publication with a press release. Nothing is more irritating to an editor than receiving a release that says nothing important and is nothing more than a thinly disguised bid for free publicity. If you want to tell the public, for instance, that you`ve redecorated the office to make your patients feel more comfortable, that`s not newsworthy. Buy an ad.

But suppose your office has invested in a brand-new, super deluxe XYZ digital panorex. That`s not only important to you, it`s important to the public. Your patients - and potential new patients - will want to know about the machine`s safety features, its advantages, its versatility, and its possibilities. Your hometown newspaper, the nearby metropolitan paper, regional magazines, even your town`s radio and TV stations, should be interested in getting this new information to the public.

The release should be sent to a newspaper`s business editor, if there is one. You can find out by calling the publication`s switchboard and asking. If there is no business editor, just ask for an appropriate name or department to put on the envelope.

A good press release should always appear on letterhead paper. That way, your office`s name, address, and phone numbers are right up front, easily accessible. Below the date should be three brief notations. "Contact:" tells the editor who to call for more information. Put your name here, and if you`re only at the office on certain days, be sure to say so (see sample).

"For immediate release" tells the editor the information can be used at any time. But if your new system won`t be operational until the first of the month, and you`re sending an early press release, it`s all right to say, "For release after June 1."

"With art" reminds the editor that a photo is enclosed, just in case the two get separated. Small newspapers will sometimes use a good quality color snapshot, and might even be grateful for it. Editors of a magazine or larger newspaper probably will want to arrange for their own photo, but your snapshot can still give them an idea of what the product looks like and what kind of picture might work.

The first section of your release should answer the classic journalism questions: who, what, where, when, and why. If you can do that succinctly in the opening sentences, it will make the editor very happy. The most important job of the first paragraph is to answer the "why" question. Why should the readers of this publication care about your new equipment? What makes it worth a free news story? Why shouldn`t you have to buy an ad?

The next section can be used to explain exactly what an XYZ system is, and how the office will use it. Make sure you point out the advantages to patients, and the fact that the system will be new in your area. If you`re not sure whether it is, ask the sales rep. If it`s not actually new in your area, ignore that point. Just say it`s new to your office and you`re excited about it. You also might include a brief mention of the office`s history. This section can include more information than that shown in the sample, but it`s best to keep the release to one page.

A "- 30 -" signals the end of the release, and adds a nice professional touch. You also can use "Finis" or "End." This lets the editor know you`ve presented all your information, and nothing more is included. Your release might be used as it is, or with editorial changes to fit the newspaper`s style. It also might be thrown in the trash, but hopefully you`ll have made it interesting enough to get the editor`s attention.

Below the "- 30 -," you can add a final section that subtly invites the editor to use your release as the springboard for a larger story. Tell the editor a reporter and photographer are welcome to visit the office to see and experience the new equipment.

Close with something brief. "I look forward to hearing from you" is always good, or you might say, "We`d be happy to talk to you anytime" or "We hope you`ll want to share this information with your readers."

Journalists tend not to use subjective terms unless they`re writing an obituary or an editorial. They`ll be more comfortable with your news release if you avoid saying something like, "Dr. Tooth`s patients will prefer this new imaging system over conventional X-rays." That`s editorializing. The publication, in effect, would be telling its readers in no uncertain terms what Dr. Tooth`s patients will think. Since editors have no way of actually knowing what patients think, they`d prefer you phrase it this way: "Dr. Tooth expects his patients will prefer this new imaging system over conventional X-rays because . . ."

A good press release also avoids browbeating. Don`t insist that your new equipment is so wondrously fabulous and exciting that readers must be informed of it immediately in a lead story. In fact, don`t use superlatives at all, and don`t use exclamation points. Be calm and businesslike. Your only job is to let the editor know you have a story readers might be interested in reading.