The weapon we've yet to deploy

  • Sibert, Karen, MD, FASA
| Mar 31, 2013

Anesthesiology seems ever more under the gun these days, with government pay cuts looming, and constant attack from mid-level anesthesia practitioners who think they can do our jobs without the bother of going to medical school. Sometimes it can seem as though we're helpless in the face of all these external threats.

But there is one weapon that the CSA has never used to full effect. Did you know that as much as 90% of the content that you see in print, on television and on the Internet was introduced to the reporters and writers by public relations firms? That fact comes to us courtesy of George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management. It underscores the reality that if you want to affect public opinion, you need professional help. We don't advise that people give their own anesthesia; why would we think that we in the CSA could handle our own public relations?

The mistake that so many of us make is to think that PR only involves buying advertising. Certainly we could spend millions quite easily on TV or print ads that appear for a moment and are quickly forgotten. But modern PR for professional associations and causes such as ours doesn't focus on paid advertising. Instead, the goal is to get as much free, positive publicity as possible by telling our story. With advertising, you get what you pay for; with good PR you get what the media can do for you—for free. We want the public—patients, legislators, hospital administrators—to know that anesthesiologists are physicians, and that we play a critical role every single day in patient care and safety. If we try to tell our own story, it sounds self-serving. If others tell it for us, we'll get the point across so much better.

To that end, the CSA recently completed a long, thoughtful process of defining our goals, auditioning several well-qualified PR firms, and finally making a selection. We will be working jointly with Landis Communications Inc., based in San Francisco, and VPE Public Relations, based in Los Angeles. These two firms will work in tandem to make sure that we have media contacts in northern and southern California, since the media markets and the populations are so different.

The blueprint for PR can be defined as:

            a) Communication with various sectors of the public to influence attitudes and opinions; to promote a person, product or organization;

            b) A strategic and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organization and its target audience;

            c) Reputation management.

If something happens in the news that concerns medicine, anesthesiology, pain management, or health care reform, we want to have a spokesperson for the CSA poised immediately to comment. For example, in January a USC football player sued the university, claiming that repeated injections of ketorolac caused him to have a myocardial infarction. That would have been a perfect opportunity for one of the CSA's pain management experts to comment, and establish anesthesiologists as the leading authorities on the risks and benefits of pain medications. If any adverse publicity surfaces about anesthesiology—yet another story about awareness under anesthesia, for instance—we should have a CSA spokesperson immediately available to tell the real story and give the public the facts.

Every time we have a successful media contact, we increase the likelihood that a reporter or blogger will turn to the CSA the next time they need information. That will increase our visibility and our reputation as experts, and will position us as more of a factor to be reckoned with when we want to make our case to legislators in Sacramento about the next scope of practice bill.

What are next steps? Landis and VPE are currently working on developing the CSA's "message," which we will certainly have the opportunity to critique and shape. We are about to start the process of "media training" for CSA spokespersons in northern and southern California, so that we will have people in position to comment on newsworthy topics whenever the opportunity arises.

What do we need from you? Story ideas! Two weeks ago, you read Dr. Linda Hertzberg's ideas on the "top ten" things she would like patients to know about anesthesia. That's a great idea for a story. I'd like to do a version of it for geriatric patients—perhaps our PR representatives could pitch it to the AARP magazine. Someone else could do a "top ten" for pediatrics, and someone else on chronic pain. Every time we get positive mentions about anesthesiology out to the public, we will benefit in the long run.

If you're doing research on a topic that would make a good story, let us know. If you're going on a mission trip to give anesthesia in a third world country, get in touch with us ahead of time so that a story can be planned in a timely fashion—and take plenty of photos! Help our PR firms by giving them material that reporters and bloggers will want to use. Please send your stories and ideas to

The ASA has recently embarked on a similar PR project to promote anesthesiology on a national level. But as we all know, all politics is local, and so is a great deal of PR. We have our new CSA logo and tagline, and a new look for the CSA Bulletin. The next step is to develop our PR profile so that Californians can learn more about California anesthesiology. The dividends have the potential to be huge—more credibility, more respect, and better visibility in Sacramento and hospital boardrooms. For the first time, we'll be deploying a significant new weapon in the battle to help our profession survive.

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