Dynamic Chiropractic - September 12, 1995, Volume 13, Issue 19

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A Primer on How to Handle the Media

Rodney Phelps, JD, DC, a 1986 graduate of Parker College of Chiropractic (where he was the first president of the Student American Chiropractic Association, and initiated the Student International Chiropractors Association) is founder of a Nashville law firm with affiliate offices in Austin, Texas and London, England.

Having represented a number of members of the print, radio, and television media over the years, I have come to respect them for their tenacious nature, and their ability to ferret out information from the most unsuspecting of the general population.

By and large, I believe, their efforts are not tinged with viciousness, although it may sometimes seem so. Rather, they are attempting to service their consumers who look to them for news and information about a variety of topics.

How many times have you see doctors being interviewed about health care concerns? From my reading, listening, and watching of the media, I'd say virtually every day. When it comes to health care issues, especially chiropractic, the media is often dealing from a position of ignorance. It is up to the chiropractic physician to assist in the education of the reporter, with the result of educating the general population.

By stepping forward and making you and your staff available to members of the media, you will have a powerful marketing tool, provided it is done with a solid foundation in your profession, and is done with careful forethought.

If you are a sole practitioner, as are a large majority of the profession, have the most articulate member of your staff determine in a friendly manner what the reporter is seeking. The general areas of information sought by the media include: background information on the profession; a particular incident or a particular person to which the doctor may be privy; or about you, the practitioner.

Also determine exactly what kind of interview the reporter wants. Will a telephone interview suffice, or a camera interview in your office? Or would it be more advantageous to you to insist that the interview be done in the studio.

Where possible, it is most advantageous to have a professional relations consultant to assist in your preparation. In many instances, since the PR person "speaks the same language" as the reporter, it may well be that the reporter will be satisfied with whatever information the consultant provides.

Once the determination has been made that you are in a position to provide information of use to the media, respond promptly and accurately. This will help create a good impression and likely will provide further access to reporters, since they are more likely to go back to someone who gives them what they want in a timely manner and makes their job easier.

David Margolies, of Margolies Communications in Dallas, Texas, a former investigative reporter with the Dallas ABC affiliate WFAA-TV, is quick to tell those facing a media inquisition that how you communicate can be even more important that what you verbalize. Truly effective spoken communication is a combination of voice, body language, and the words themselves. The Drs. Capp, husband and wife professors in the communication department of Baylor University, theorized that less that 10 percent of effective communication are the words themselves; that the vocal qualities of the speaker amount to 40 percent of effective communication; and that body language contributes at least 50 percent to the success in communication.

Each of these factors however will come up short if the spokesperson is not enthusiastic about what is being said. How many times have you heard speakers at seminars or in the classroom who know every scintilla of information about a subject, but who deliver it in such a monotonous, "dead fish" delivery style that no one retains or cares to retain the important information? All the correct information in the world will fall upon deaf ears if it is not delivered in an animated, enthusiastic manner.

The following is a "baker's dozen" formulated to help the doctor when facing the press:

  1. Don't use medical terms when being interviewed. Those who do are probably the ones who object most strenuously when lawyers use legal language. Use concise terms which the public will easily understand and, where possible, use examples to make certain that what is being said is more readily understandable.

  2. Speculation can cause more trouble than you ever imagined. Be blunt: Tell the interviewer that you don't know the answer; where possible, volunteer to find the correct information to assist the reporter. If you do not know the answer to a particular question or topic, just say so. You'll be saving your time and, more importantly, that of the reporter.

  3. If you really want to create a bucket of worms, lie to the press, but don't call me when you're up to your neck in alligators.

  4. Understand that nothing is "off the record." As with the Miranda rights that police are required to read to an arrested suspect, anything that you say can, and probably will, be used against you. Thinking that what you say is off the record can create animosity between you and the press once you have been quoted. Don't say that which you can't afford to see in the early edition of USA Today.

  5. Remember when you took the oral portion of your state boards, and you were instructed to ask for clarification if you didn't understand the question? Well, just think of that interview as state boards, and feel free to ask the interviewer for clarification of something difficult to understand as phrased.

  6. Be sure that the press knows that you are on your "home court" by participating in the agenda setting, including asking for the reason for the interview, and what questions are to be anticipated.

  7. If asked a question which you are not prepared to answer, respectfully and cordially decline to answer or, if possible, deflect the question by either deferring it, or offering to provide the answer after you have had the chance to do further research. During my years of teaching risk management and jurisprudence at Parker College, each class started off with an essay exam. I would tell the student that if they didn't know the correct answer, give me a funny or original answer, and I would give them partial credit for their answer. The sole purpose for this exercise was to help the future doctor of chiropractic be nimble in response when faced with a question which the doctor needs time to think of a decent response.

  8. An interview is just like taking finals, so you should be prepared to provide a list of key points or articles of interest that you wish to convey. You'll be surprised how easy it is to work these points of interest into the interview.

  9. Often, rather than a complete response to a question which may be slanted against you, give a partial response, then offer to move the questioning along by using some of the material that you prepared for in #8.

  10. Also tied in with #8 is the situation where an important question is left unasked, or an important point needs to be made. Simply raise the issue yourself, along with the important point that you need to make.

  11. Leave your negative feelings at the door. Even if the interviewer is consistently asking questions or trying to make points in a negative manner, do not repeat the negative attitude used in the phrasing of the question. Rather, come back in a positive, relaxed manner, which will help disarm the negative intent of the question.

  12. There is virtually nothing that will enhance your credibility as much as maintaining eye contact with the interviewer, while keeping an eye on alert posture (as a chiropractor, that ought to be a given!), and even, calm and appropriate hand and body movement. If a TV interview is what you are facing, do not try looking at the camera. Invariably you'll come off looking like a scared rabbit or, worse yet, like a nervous junkie whose stash is about to be discovered.

  13. In real estate, the three most important words are location, location, location. In the media arena, the three most important words are practice, practice, practice. Failure to practice out loud and in detail on the topics that you anticipate will be asked is looking for disaster. Again, think back to your boards and the time spent working with your fellow students on the oral parts of the exam. Need I say more?
Following these steps may be a little time consuming but when done correctly will make the chiropractic profession as a whole and you as the doctor look knowledgeable, consumer friendly: a doctor that the public looks up to as a portal-of-entry health care provider.

Rodney Phelps, JD, DC
Nashville, Tennessee