Putting your best face forward

Cleveland Clinic was preparing to tell the world that it completed the nation's first near-total face transplant on Connie Culp, who was shot in the face.

Any major public announcement takes a great deal of planning, strategy, and thought about the risks and benefits of how it's implemented. In December 2008, Cleveland Clinic was preparing to tell the world that it completed the nation's first near-total face transplant on Connie Culp, who was shot in the face.

Since then, more than a dozen face transplants have occurred, with the story of Charla Nash, whose face was torn off by her friend's chimpanzee in February 2009 and who revealed her new face to the public for the first time this past August 11, being the most widely known. The procedure is still considered experimental and each one presents a unique outreach scenario, but that first one still stands out.

When we listed our patient for a face donor, numerous communications challenges awaited. There would be no advance warning of timing, so we had to be ready at a moment's notice. The international spotlight was soon upon us for the first American to receive a new face after multiple surgeries designed to restore her basic ability to chew, smell, and taste.

We spent a great deal of time reviewing media coverage from the world's first partial face transplant that took place in France. We reviewed news conferences and evaluated the media coverage for tone and potential issues of concern. It was incredibly helpful because we could repeat what we liked and change what we didn't. We worked hard to keep the messages simple and the spokespeople consistent. It was important to keep the surgeons on the same page and address the ethical concerns from the media up front. We also worked to protect the integrity of the research and promote the innovation and teamwork that awed us from the start. Last, but not least, we worked closely with our patient to make decisions that were, above all else, in her best interests.

With something as novel as a face transplant, it was critical to educate and inform the public about the tremendous potential benefits of the procedure. And, as one of our surgeons said, “You need a face to face the world.”

Transplanting a face initially had a “yuck” factor that we had to overcome. The way the media portrays a new procedure is often instrumental in how the public perceives it. The more informed reporters were, the more accurate the stories appeared.

Another key message was that this was a surgery of last resort, not a cosmetic procedure. We wanted to protect the patient's privacy, but knew that eventually we had to help her re-enter the world without trails of media following her every step. We also sought to promote a team of surgeons and other medical professionals whose commitment to medical innovation and patient safety drive everything they do. It's also critical to have a strategy if all does not go according to plan. In healthcare, that could mean serious complications or even the patient's potential death.

Communicating complex healthcare issues takes time and planning. Our team worked to anticipate every media need and answer every question the public would ask. As a communicator, this was indeed a special event. It was a medical miracle and an opportunity to take the public behind the scenes of a surgery that has shaped the future.

Eileen Sheil is executive director of corporate communications at Cleveland Clinic, one of the country's top nonprofit academic medical centers. Her column will focus on the myriad challenges of healthcare PR and topics related to the management of the comms function. Sheil can be reached at sheile@ccf.org.

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