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AANS Neurosurgeon | Volume 26, Number 4, 2017

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Why I Don’t Want to Run for Political Office: Surviving a Media Blitz

I have no surefire media advice for neurological surgeons on how to deliver an accurate, well-intended, thoughtful message to the public. So please, take this article as it was intended, as a single point of view. At some point, each of us are called upon to give an interview to a newspaper, radio, TV or e-media. It may range from an interview about a patient you helped/saved, to a discussion of a controversial topic that is likely to cause you great trepidation.  I have been involved in both. There are several realities worth sharing that I have learned through good and bad experiences.

Media Training

Media training by an expert as part of your skill armamentarium is essential. Do not pass it up when it is offered. However, even if you undertake this training by your institution or a consultant, it will not guarantee your safety or help you anticipate the unwanted criticism of your opinions. Nevertheless, media experts can act on your behalf or provide you with advice on how to deliver a cogent message that will resonate with the audience.    

The Interview

There are several truisms you will have to accept if you plan on being interviewed. The bedrock of our democracy, the First Amendment of our Constitution, reigns supreme. It both protects you and puts you in harm’s way. The First Amendment is clear: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” There are several forms of expression not protected by the First Amendment, such as libel/slander, perjury and threats, so avoid these. 

We have all observed combative conversations between politicians and journalists in the current political climate. Nothing is sacrilegious, almost anything can and will be said about you. You can anticipate, but not prevent, criticism of your well-intentioned words. So, how do we get our message across?

  • Speak clearly, concisely, professionally.
  • Realize nothing is “off the record”.
  • Ask to review the quotes you offered or fact check, but some journalists will not participate in that exercise.
  • Consider only answering questions in writing to avoid being misquoted.

The take home message is that the reporter and the media platform have the upper hand in being able to tell  your story their way. Claiming slander/libel is a failed and frustrating strategy.

Remember, this is America and you have a choice on whether to consent to an interview. Do not give an interview when you are not comfortable with the subject or anticipate a trap. There will be times when no interview is the best course of action. Sometimes it is obvious that the journalist has already written the narrative before the interview. That story will surely not read as you hoped. Read the journalist’s work before the interview. Do your homework. There is a track record that provides a window into the journalist’s perspective and it may be predictive of your experience. Like a neurosurgical procedure, if you know the landmarks, pitfalls and trajectory, it will better prepare you for the deluge. 

Other times, you may be able to tell a compelling, honest story and help accurately shape the information that the public will consume. Do not help a journalist write your opinion in a way you did not intend. If a question is misleading or incorrect then reframe it, reword it, correct it or say you cannot answer the question as it is presented. “The truth shall set you free” is still a reliable strategy, several thousand years later. It may not always protect you, but it helps avoid the proverbial rabbit hole.

Parting Wisdom

Lastly, do not take media criticism personally – advice easily suggested and almost impossible to follow. The excruciating pain of an unfavorable media spotlight can be crushing.  However, the news cycle is short and the public memory of your interview details are fleeting. One may not believe that until tincture of time washes away all but your memory of it. So, have fun, be wise, represent our wonderful profession well and learn from every one of these unpredictable media experiences.

Calendar/Courses

2019 Mayo Clinic Advancements in Surgical & Medical Management of the Spine
Jan. 13-17, 2019; Kohala Coast, Big Island, Hawaii

Pituitary Education Day
Jan. 16-18, 2019; Orlando, Fla.

Innovations in Endoscopic Minimally Invasive Brain Surgery
Jan. 16-19, 2019; Celebration, Fla.

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