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WyDA campaign tries to raise public opinion of dentistry

Wyoming’s public relations efforts come together through the ADA SPA program

Cheyenne, Wyo.—In a state with nearly 98,000 square miles of sprawling land, people are almost forced to keep to themselves.

The drive between towns can be hours. The distance between dental offices the same.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that Wyoming dentists were out of touch when it came to understanding where they stood in the eye of the public. Three years ago, it wasn’t very good.

“I think dentists in Wyoming had their eyes opened a few years ago when they didn’t sit as high,” said Dr. Bradley Kincheloe, president of the Wyoming Dental Association.

But a lot has changed since 2008. And much of it has to do with the aggressive campaign launched by the WyDA with the help of the American Dental Association’s State Public Affairs Program.

“It’s just been a peace of mind for the dentists in Wyoming to know that the SPA program was available and that we used it to the fullest,” said Diane Bouzis, WyDA executive director.

Wyoming’s story begins in 2006.

For nine years prior, the issue of denturism had laid dormant in Wyoming. The WyDA fought hard in 1997 against a bill that would allow denturists to make, place and sell dentures directly to the public.

A denturist is typically a dental laboratory technician who has not received any formal education to perform dental procedures. Wyoming dentists believe there is more to providing dentures than just teeth; it’s about being able to diagnose dental disease, oral cancers and provisions for better oral health.

The bill failed and the issue went away.

But denturism resurfaced in 2006. And the debate seemed more intense than in years prior.

“With that in mind, we knew we needed to get some good direction, some good PR and soon after the State Public Affairs Program started with the ADA,” Ms. Bouzis said.

The WyDA applied to be part of the ADA’s SPA program in 2007, which started that year as a way for the Association to support state societies in developing their legislative agendas and public affairs initiatives. To date, 34 dental societies have participated in the program.

The ADA funding allowed the WyDA to hire Brimmer Communications, a Wyoming public relations firm, to lead their charge. One of Brimmer’s first tasks was to conduct public focus groups to determine how people felt about dentists. The result was not good.

While dentists were continuing their work as solo practitioners and small business owners in their offices, unbeknownst to them, public opinion of them was waning. Specifically, a significant portion of the population did not identify dentists as medical authorities, said Liz Brimmer, president of Brimmer Communications.

“I guess it was surprising to many that public opinion of dentistry wasn’t that high,” Ms. Bouzis said.

The WyDA and Brimmer sprung into action. The two groups crafted a series of public service announcements for TV and print publications—titled “Your Teeth, Your Health, For Life”—which were timed to saturate the market leading up to the beginning of the legislative session in 2009. Individual copies of the public service announcements were passed on to each legislator and member of the governor’s administration, Brimmer said.

The WDA was successful in defeating the denturism bill in 2006 but it resurfaced in 2007. And 2008. And every year ever since.

So the public relations campaign had to be more of a long-term strategy, not just for one legislative session.

“With any deployment that’s expected to be effective, there needs to be a tightly coordinated campaign so that the outcomes are achievable,” Ms. Brimmer said. “The key outcome was to shift public opinion and that’s not always easy. That’s not going to be done by one op-ed. It’s not one single press release that’s going to do it. You need to walk your talk.”

And they did.

The two groups crafted a bill in 2009 called the Oral Health Initiative that funded a study of oral health in Wyoming. It also provided $50,000 to conduct oral health screenings for third-grade students and senior citizens. The bill’s passage and volunteer efforts on behalf of the dentists overshadowed the denturism issue and allowed legislators and the public to focus on oral health as a whole.

“The bill helped deflect what votes might have otherwise gone to denturism as an expression of concern for oral health,” WyDA officials wrote in their application for the 2011 SPA program.

All of their efforts were to not only provide better oral health care for Wyoming residents but to change the public’s opinion about what it means to be a dentist. As Brimmer puts it, “We wanted to put the doc back in dentist.”

Having the money to hire Brimmer Communications and the guidance of the ADA SPA program allowed the WyDA to handily defeat denturism every year.

“All of this would not have been possible if we had not had this group. The SPA program, there’s a lot of strength behind it, a lot of focus and they give great direction,” Ms. Bouzis said.

This past legislative session, the WyDA was even able to get noncovered services legislation passed quite easily and defeat another denturism bill, Ms. Bouzis said.

“Our extreme success in the past legislative year came from the groundwork laid in the previous two to three years,” Dr. Kincheloe said. On behalf of their legislative success, the WyDA won a grassroots award from the American Dental Political Action Committee at the Washington Leadership Conference in May.
Funding from the SPA program ended June 30 but the WyDA can reapply should something else arise, Ms. Bouzis said. Ms. Brimmer credits not only the ADA but the passion of Wyoming dentists.

“These are campaigns like any other campaign, whether it’s a political campaign, an ad campaign, a legislative campaign,” Ms. Brimmer said. “Wyoming dentists won. And they won because they were very smart, very positive and they gave the public affairs program a chance to succeed and it did.”