How does a start-up medical device manufacturer with second-to-market technology and little budget persuade U.S. ophthalmologists that its procedure for farsightedness (acronym CK) is a necessary addition to their practice, while also convincing Baby Boomers nationwide that CK is the vision correction procedure they’ve been waiting for?
Refractec, Inc., with PR consultancy The Goolsby Group, did just that with a PR campaign that relied on the creative application (and budget-saving benefits) of some traditional & non-traditional PR strategies.
On April 16, 2002, privately held Refractec Inc., received U.S. FDA approval for CK (Conductive Keratoplasty), the first non-laser treatment for Baby Boomers with farsightedness. News of CK’s marketing approval came 18 months After the FDA approved Laser Thermal Keratoplasty (LTK), a laser treatment for farsightedness and CK’s biggest competitor. That is, it would have been if LTK hadn’t suffered a very public demise due to poor patient outcomes and a lack of consumer demand. This ultimately resulted in Sunrise Technologies’ (the manufacturer of LTK) insolvency and removal from the stock market roles.
The failure of LTK and Sunrise Technologies had the media especially skeptical of CK’s chances for success. Worse, the ophthalmic community was running for cover, leery to adopt (i.e., purchase) another new technology for farsightedness. Because Refractec did not have the budget for an advertising campaign, the company relied solely on PR to ignite demand for CK and convince U.S. ophthalmologists the procedure was a worthy, even necessary, addition to their practice.
The objectives were to clearly define CK’s consumer appeal to establish awareness of the procedure, its comparative benefits & availability; to secure enough PR-generated media coverage to spur meaningful patient demand for CK, and encourage adoption by U.S. ophthalmologists to meet corporate sales goal of 90 CK units by December 2002; and to convert consumer demand into trial to meet corporate goal of 1,800 CK procedures performed by December 2002.
The PR campaign strategy was based on research conducted during CK’s Clinical Trials, including analysis of quantitative and qualitative patient data, focus groups, a review of scientific literature and a media audit. Research provided insight into CK’s audiences, helped define its consumer appeal and news value, and need for media re-education.
Analysis confirmed that farsightedness affects 60 million Americans – more than half of those over age 40—and studies showed the number of farsighted Americans over 40 is nearly twice as large as those with nearsightedness; and baby boomers are significantly more risk-averse than their younger, nearsighted counterparts. Therefore, demonstrating that CK is a safe, minimally invasive procedure would be critical to success.
The media pool was skeptical about farsighted treatments after heralding LTK’s approval and subsequent demise. In this negative landscape, it was essential to penetrate the heightened scrutiny with education, data and industry support.
Using the media as a conduit, the PR campaign targeted two diverse, yet similarly skeptical, audiences:
· U.S. Ophthalmologists: Five years of clinical trail outreach to physicians sent a clear message: Yes, the data on CK was compelling with 92% of patients reporting vision improvement of 20/40 or better. But without PROOF of consumer demand for CK, they would take a wait-and-see approach to purchasing the new technology.
· U.S. Consumers Over Age 40: Prior to CK, Baby Boomers remained a largely untapped market for vision surgery. All procedures prior to LTK were designed for treating nearsightedness (even LASIK initially). Research clarified that Boomers considered LASIK too risky, and that they were waiting for a “safer” procedure that was “easier to undergo.” CK fit the bill.
While the PR campaign was national in scope, its success would be judged largely on how it impacted ophthalmologists personally, in their own market.
The PR team set out to build a roster of the nation’s leading ophthalmologists & institutions to be the first to offer CK. Each of the 54 physicians selected was a respected opinion leader and known early adopter. If the campaign were successful, they would become “broadcast towers” in the ophthalmic industry.
The team would then leverage the physicians’ credibility with the media, especially reporters familiar with LTK, to reinforce the news value of CK. Quotes from a cross-section of physicians would show solid support for CK and provide clarity for CK’s consumer appeal to some 60 million Americans, and demonstrate its advantage over other procedures.
It would arget high-profile, national media placements to establish overall awareness of CK among Baby Boomers; leverage the national placements with heavy local PR in the 54 markets to ensure patient demand is realized by the CK physicians. Encourage media’s use of website address & phone number to connect “Motivated” patients with “Informed” doctors.
 The PR campaign walked a fine line. The competitive & territorial nature of the 54 physicians meant that news stories featuring doctors, other than themselves, would not bode well. As such, many conventional tactics used in national campaigns, such as a satellite VNR, would simply not get the job done. Instead, a VNR was produced with placeholders for sound bites to ensure only the local doctor was quoted; template press materials focused on local availability of the CK procedure; Goolsby Group held media training sessions for all physicians and their PR reps nationwide to ensure all spoke with one clear voice; as a take-away, the PR reps were provided a CD-Rom with PR guidance on pitching CK for all skill levels, together with digital versions of all press materials; and exclusives on live surgeries, patients & renowned physicians were given to the national press to meet their need for exclusivity and differentiation.
Goolsby Group persuaded Refractec to hold the FDA approval news for four days, to allow for orchestration of the national PR launch (client was notified on Thurs., April 11; FDA approval was announced Tues., April 16).
The team pre-produced exclusives were negotiated with CBS “This Morning” to air in tandem with the FDA announcement, and with “The Today Show,” for an in-depth in-studio interview & package for the weekend.
CNN “American Morning” with Paula Zahn followed CBS with its medical correspondent in-studio (Headline News then cycled two stories in the next 48 hours). AP, Reuters, Reuters Health and HealthScout filed stories by early afternoon on the 16th, setting up the local-market push: interview requests streamed in. On April 17th The Wall Street Journal featured CK in a top-to-fold story (no small feat given Refractec’s privately held status).
Stories appeared on “CNN Health Report,” “Fox News Report,” the Discovery channel; and every national network and nearly every major daily covered the news. Health Magazine went on to rank CK as the #2 “Medical Breakthrough of the Year,” joining other national print pubs in positive CK coverage.
The national coverage established CK’s credibility as a news story and the local markets followed with original reporting. The VNR was distributed by-hand to TV affiliates in all 54 CK markets; Print reporters were granted access to local patients. Within 90 days, every CK market covered the story, in most cases reporting with a full sweep of coverage across all local TV affiliates and dailies. ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC network affiliates in multiple markets syndicated stories, which helped penetrate smaller non-CK markets.
Even now, nine months post-launch, original print and broadcast stories continue to appear.
A precise and unwavering focus on CK’s Key Message Points helped the Goolsby Group achieve audience figures topping 200 million (actual circulation, not calculated impressions) with ad equivalency of nearly $3 million. More than 1,000 TV stories aired, ranking CK among the top-5 most-viewed VNR/B-roll package in 2002 – without a satellite feed. All news coverage included at least 3 message points, with the majority hitting 5+. A majority of articles also included a reference to, allowing for motivated patients to find informed doctors.
Website metrics show an average of 28,859 page views per month / up from 7,040 in March (pre-launch) and an average 5,500 searches per-month from Google, Yahoo & MSN / up from 390 in March
Doctors nationwide reported strong demand for CK resulting from the PR campaign. Within three months, the initial 54 physicians were each averaging 15 CK procedures per month, a milestone that took more than a year for LASIK to achieve. At the American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgeons meeting in June, physicians lined up to purchase the CK technology: By year-end 2002, the number of physicians offering CK topped 250, far exceeding Refractec’s year-one goal. An additional 100 physicians will be trained to perform CK by the end of Q1-03.
 On October 21, 2002, Refractec announced that 3,860 CK procedures had been performed between April 16 and the first week of October. By December 31, that number topped 5,000.