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

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

Nov 01, 2007

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).

Three steps to take before facing media
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.

"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.

Media-Crisis Management 101:
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.

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.