While cosmetic surgery has successfully gained mainstream media coverage, it still struggles to reconstruct reporters' tendencies to take the medical part of the procedure in vain.
If you've seen the flood of media stories on Botox recently, you might think the US is an insecure nation obsessed with looking as youthful and attractive as possible. In many ways, you'd be right.
Botox is just the latest in a long series of cosmetic procedures - most duly covered by the press - designed to make both men and women feel better about their appearance. From breast augmentation and liposuction to Retin-A and "eye-jobs, the entire concept of changing what nature has given has evolved from a topic many were afraid to publicly discuss to a front-page story in The New York Times.
There's no doubt the media has done a lot to change perceptions about cosmetic surgery as a whole, but there is growing concern that the science and medicine behind cosmetic surgery is getting lost in the coverage that focuses solely on the instant benefits. "I always stress to reporters that just because it's cosmetic surgery, doesn't mean it isn't surgery, says Leida Snow, media relations director for the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. "Even with the best of care, surgery still carries risk. In some of the coverage of cosmetic surgery, there's almost an attitude like it's going to a store to buy lipstick."
Botox's approval as a cosmetic product in April has been a boon for Allergan, which owns the patents, but the company still has to work to ensure that coverage doesn't focus strictly on its cosmetic applications. Botox was originally developed as a therapeutic treatment for people suffering from facial distortions brought on by conditions such as cerebral palsy or stroke.
Getting media to see the whole picture
"One of the misconceptions we try to battle is that it isn't about vanity, says Christine Cassiano, Allergan's PR manager. "Many reporters will initially want to focus solely on the cosmetic side. We try to get them to understand the therapeutic side as well. We'll often reach out to help media, and in turn consumers who may suffer from some of the conditions on the therapeutic side."
Cassiano says the company handles most PR in-house, but has used its external agency, Burson-Marsteller, to help with the flood of media interest.
Ame Wadler, Burson's healthcare practice chairwoman, says this isn't the first time a health and beauty story has become front-page news. "If I could pick one skillset you need in terms of these really juicy stories that your clients put in front of you, it's the ability to look long-term, and know how news cycles unfold after the initial story, she says.
Wadler notes the media frenzy for Botox began long before the product had received approval from the Food & Drug Administration. "Many reporters wanted to write the story before then, but we worked with them to assure that we'd be available to help with their pieces when the time was right.
The vast majority responded to that."
But like many health stories, Botox requires much reporter education.
"Even the name alone needs understanding because of what the product is made of, Wadler says. "This is not what you get in a can of soup gone wrong."
The hype surrounding Botox has helped raise media and public awareness about the entire cosmetic surgery category, but only up to a point. "It's probably stimulated coverage overall, but it's one of those things that's been saturated ad nauseum, observes Dean Draznin, founder of Draznin Communications, which represents leading New York-based laser skin surgeon Dr. David Goldberg. "The media tends to respond to the latest and greatest.
A few years ago it was lunchtime lasers, where people could go in over their lunch hour, have skin laser surgery, and then go back to the office."
Many reporters, few specialists
But despite the fact that cosmetic surgery has moved mainstream, there are only a handful of reporters who specialize in the area. The most respected consumer reporters are author and Allure columnist Joan Kron, and New York Times' reporters Reed Abelson and Alex Kuczynski. On the trade side, top journalists include Cosmetic Surgery Times editor-in-chief Tim Troy, Skin & Aging editorial director Larisa Hubbs, and Melissa Batchilder, managing editor of Cosmetic Dermatology.
One sign of the growing popularity of cosmetic surgery is the breadth of beats that now cover the topic. "It used to be primarily health reporters, but now more beauty editors and lifestyle editors are writing stories, says Kerri Mazzoni, Magnet Communications account supervisor. "We've even gone into things like the workplace section, and The Wall Street Journal recently did a story on people getting Botox before they go in for a job interview."
This is all good news for the industry, but it does mean that PR pros are often dealing with journalists completely unfamiliar with the subject.
"Even if it's a health reporter, there has been such tremendous turnover that a lot of them are new to the beat, notes Snow. "So one of the things we do on our website, www.surgery.org, is provide a section with a lot of background information for the media."
Draznin notes an increased interest among men's magazines and even some fitness publications, especially for stories that focus on a narrow sub-segment such as laser hair removal. "Because of major developments in skin laser surgery every three or four months, we can also pitch medical stories that border on tech stories, he adds. "We had story in Popular Science based on the technology and the concept of lunchtime laser treatments."
But even with all the media possibilities now, Draznin says, "Our main focus will always be the top-tier women's and lifestyle publications."
Striving for coverage diversity
If there's a complaint about cosmetic surgery coverage it's that everyone wants to do virtually the same story. There have been dozens of pieces on "Botox parties or on the recent arrests of unlicensed, untrained people offering cut-rate "Botox-like treatments that permanently scar the patient.
The result is that some of the messages that need to get through - such as the need to check physicians' credentials and make sure the surgery is done with the right equipment in a proper setting - can get overlooked in the hype over the latest wonder procedure.
Wadler credits most reporters for at least trying to convey that these are not frivolous procedures. "True, there are lots of Botox party stories, but even in those pieces, there's a spectrum ranging from suggesting that this isn't the best way to get a medial procedure to yes, go get your Botox cocktail, she says.
Mazzoni says there are ways to get a journalist's attention for a cosmetic surgery story even if you are not touting the latest and greatest treatment for looking younger. Mazzoni's client, the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, has for years received regular coverage for its program of doing free plastic surgery for victims of domestic violence. "The Arizona Republic recently did a story that was followed up by local TV stations, she says.
Mazzoni also recommends keeping your organization in the public eye by generating and releasing a lot of surveys focusing on topics such as whether people think aging impacts their career, or even light-hearted subjects, such as which celebrity has the best nose.
There is some question as to whether the entire field will remain a hot media subject once the Botox fad dies down. Mazzoni is confident it will, saying, "People are always concerned about their looks. So there will always be new angles for journalists to cover."
WHERE TO GO
The New York Times; USA Today; The Wall Street Journal; Chicago Tribune;
W; Allure; Vogue; Cosmopolitan; GQ; Women's Day; Esquire; Elle; Marie
Claire; Men's Health; Fitness; Vogue; Harper's Bazaar; Redbook; Ladies
Home Journal; Working Women; Glamour; Mademoiselle; InStyle; Elle;
Newsweek; Time; BusinessWeek; Fortune
Cosmetic Dermatology; Cosmetic Surgery; Contemporary Surgery; Cosmetic
Surgery Times; Dermatology; Modern Physician; Plastic Surgery Product;
Skin & Aging; Skin; Dermatology Times
CNN; Fox News Network; CNBC; Oxygen Network; Lifetime