In the 1980s, when a University of Iowa public affairs officer asked pathologist Kent Bottles, M.D., to answer questions about Pap smears from a Des Moines Register reporter, Bottles was apprehensive.
It was his first media interview. "I hadn't learned the tricks of the trade," says Bottles, who is now CEO of Grand Rapids (Mich.) Medical Education & Research Center.
Twenty years and numerous interviews later, he says he has learned to answer questions succinctly, avoid medical jargon and appeal to a mass audience.
Many physician executives have overcome apprehensions about publicity. They recognize responding to media requests can enhance their own credibility and that of their organizations.
But, as Bottles notes, learning to meet a reporter's needs is critical to becoming an effective media expert.
As an internist and director of Health Services at New York University Medical Center in the 1980s, Steven Lamm, M.D., gave many interviews and learned to deliver snappy, informative answers.
"With radio or print, you have five minutes to give your answer to most reporters and a minute and a half on TV," says Lamm, now assistant professor of medicine at NYU-Bellevue. "It requires a physician to focus their information."
Lamm worked at becoming a reliable source by doing his homework and returning reporters' calls promptly. Having New York network producers and assignment editors as patients helped, too.
Without hiring a publicist, he became a monthly medical expert on ABC's The View; appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show when his book, The Virility Solution (Simon & Schuster, 1998), was published on the same day Viagra hit the market; and wrote health columns for The New York Post and New Choices.
The message is clear: Publicity begets publicity. But becoming media-savvy requires learning new skills.
Susan Peterson runs a media training firm in Washington, D.C. Her clients include the American College of Emergency Physicians and Johns Hopkins Medical Center. She says doctors' main problem is "having a lot of knowledge to impart and sometimes not understanding the rules of the media game." She videotapes doctors to help them learn to answer reporters' questions concisely and teaches them to relinquish control of the story to the reporter.
Establishing a distinct or unique medical niche also can be effective in generating publicity.
As chief of cardiology at the New England Heart Institute in Manchester, N.H., Edward Palank, M.D., wrote a 1990 article for Physicians and Sportsmedicine showing that men in their 30s and 40s lowered their cholesterol by playing golf.
Triggering reports in the Associated Press, Golf Digest, Golf World, Prevention and other publications, it launched his career as a medical golf expert.
"A new study in the (New England Journal of Medicine), a new procedure, a book, a practice" can contribute to generating publicity, says Nancy Haberman, a media director at Rubenstein Communications, New York.
Lamm says becoming a media expert has made him a better doctor. "Patients don't have one hour to hear about their acid reflux. Often you have three minutes to communicate their ailment," he says. "People who are effective meet the needs of the consumer, whether it be a patient or TV reporter."
Gary Stern is a freelance writer living in New York City.