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Here come the reporters: What are you going to say?


It started as a payment issue - something common and relatively minor - but by the time it ended the board-certified veterinary surgeon felt so much heat from the media he closed his practice and left town.

It started as a payment issue — something common and relatively minor — but by the time it ended the board-certified veterinary surgeon felt so much heat from the media he closed his practice and left town.

How did things get that far out of hand?

"He just became a bit too heavy-handed with a client, the client ran to the media and the media slaughtered him," says Jim Humphries, DVM, Colorado-based media and communications consultant to the veterinary profession.

The surgeon in question is now in academia. His story illustrates what can happen to any unprepared DVM who comes under the glare of television lights, has a microphone thrust into his or her face or is confronted by any "bulldog" reporter, says Humphries, president and news director of Veterinary News Network (VNN).

With client complaints to state boards on the rise and a media that seems ever more aggressive in pursuing consumer issues, chances are more practitioners will find themselves trying to ward off or defend against unfavorable publicity.

Three steps to take before facing media

"Most veterinarians go about their daily business and don't think about this. It's the last thing on their minds," Humphries says. "But when it happens, it's big. If they're unprepared, a doctor can look very bad, say stupid things or use inflammatory or sensational language that can damage his or her career or someone else's."

That's why Humphries, who conducts media-crisis management workshops for state veterinary associations around the country, places the most emphasis on preparation.

"A veterinarian, or a veterinary clinic, without a plan on how it will deal with the media is like a blind man trying to feel his way out of a burning building. The worst-case scenario usually is the one most likely to occur," Humphries says.

His mantra for any DVM facing a media inquiry: "Tell it all; tell it fast; tell the truth," but don't go beyond that. Many practices and individuals dig themselves into a media-crisis hole by not adhering to that principle, he says.

Preparation starts by establishing a communications-crisis team, deciding who will make the critical decisions on what to say to the media and who may speak. For a small practice, the owner, office manager and perhaps someone with technical knowledge likely would be on the team, Humphries says. For larger practices, the team should include the CEO, vice presidents, senior management, head of the public-relations department and anyone who can add technical expertise.

Media-Crisis Management 101:

The team's job is to develop a plan of action to be followed in the event of any media issue. It should be rehearsed and ready to use at any time. Team members must be accessible to each other and know exactly what is expected of them, Humphries explains.

"Besides being succinct and truthful, the second most fundamental step is to control the flow of information," Humphries says. "When you lose control of the flow, the reporters — remember, they're professionals and very good at this — take control and put you at a disadvantage. By controlling the flow, you determine exactly what [information] the media gets — give them what they ask for, or at least make them feel they have all they need so they don't go elsewhere."

How does one stay in control of a media crisis? Humphries summarizes the process this way:

• Get the facts

Become fully versed on the issue. "It could be a complaint against you or your practice, or the media may ask you to comment on what happened to another veterinarian or practice," Humphries says. "I recommend that vets first call their state veterinary association, which probably is already aware of the issue and likely has people trained in media-crisis techniques who can help them."

• Craft your message in short, simple sentences

"Don't think in paragraphs. A good sound bite is about two sentences. Write a few of them down, really craft them and practice saying them," Humphries says. "Use calming, valued words, such as 'We responded immediately, and are doing everything we can to correct the matter.'

"Remember that most journalists will ask leading questions designed to highlight the negative, so your goal is to turn it around to the positive," Humphries explains.

• Craft "bridging" statements

These are brief phrases to "take you from where you don't want to be straight to your message point," Humphries explains. "A bridge typically is used after giving a brief answer. For example, a reporter might ask if the state board did the right thing by suspending another vet's license.

"The reporter is looking for you to say something negative. You deflect that with words like, 'I can't speak to all the details in that case, but what I can tell you is...[the state board is made up of competent people who do a fine job of controlling the quality of veterinary practice] or [the state board is led by highly qualified, respected and exceptionally qualified veterinarians.]' "

The bridge statement is the part that turns the issue around, Humphries says. "It is a quick phrase like, 'but what I can tell you is,' 'but the good news is,' 'but what I do know is,' 'but what I can tell you is,' words like that. Something that segues into your positive message."

That process is the essence of what Humphries calls "Communication Crisis Management 101."

"Answer or deflect, then bridge to your message point, and don't let reporters lead you away from that. If you're well prepared with these thoughts in mind, then even if a journalist ambushes you in a parking lot and sticks a microphone in your face, instead of foolishly trying to put your hand over the camera lens — which just makes one look guilty of something — you can give a calm, quick, truthful answer and then bridge to your positive message."

It's one thing when the media ask a veterinarian to comment about the work of another. One should avoid demeaning or speaking ill of colleagues, Humphries says. But it's quite a different matter when the media confronts a practitioner about a complaint or accusation against them personally.

"I would never recommend that the accused go before the camera, especially if it's a hot-button issue that could be career-ending," Humphries says. "A situation like that is charged with emotion, so it's easy to become defensive. It's best to get a spokesman — your attorney, perhaps the office manager, a well-spoken staff member. Like the attorneys in a divorce case, the spokesman helps take the emotion out of it."

What if an accused veterinarian is determined to speak for himself or herself in front of the camera?

"In that case, they should go into what I call 'message-delivery-robot mode,' " Humphries says. "They should deliver their message quickly in almost a dead-pan manner, but use statements that show they are human and caring."

Many reporters, Humphries says, like to ask "what if" or speculative questions, such as, "We talked to another veterinarian and he doesn't seem to have this problem. Why is it a problem here?"

The best way to handle such questions is to avoid speculation, Humphries says. "One might say, 'I don't know who you talked to or the situation over there, but what I do know is, [positive statement about how things are handled in one's own practice.]' "

Veterinarians facing questions about themselves should remember that, when being interviewed, "your goal is not to participate in a question-answer session, as odd as that may sound," Humphries says. "Rather, your goal is just to state your position. Answer the main question, then deflect and bridge to your message. If you permit a series of questions, all you do with each answer is beg another question that leans toward the negative."

Dr. Jim Humphries

Humphries' one-day workshops on media-crisis techniques are free to all state veterinary medical associations. Fort Dodge Animal Health covers the expenses. He has presented the workshops in all but about a dozen states, he says, some of them more than once.

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