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How to talk to the media

Practical advice from the co-author of a new book


No matter what the topic, whether it’s new killer bacteria, fibre-optic networks or street-gang syndrome, academics are fielding more and more media calls seeking their expertise. Fundamentally that may be a good thing, but your average, detail-oriented researcher who is asked to summarize decades of insight into a 30-second sound bite can find it harrowing, if not entirely disheartening.

Enter René Vézina and Bernard Motulsky, whose new book, Comment parler aux médias (How to speak to the media) is a no-nonsense guide designed to help anxious interviewees get their message across and make the most of their air time, however brief.

René Vézina has 30 years of media experience and writes a column for Les Affaires and hosts a daily radio spot on the world of economics. Bernard Motulsky, formerly a journalist and public-affairs executive at Université de Montréal, has a PhD in philosophy and now holds the research chair in public relations and marketing communication at Université du Québec à Montréal.

Interviewed by University Affairs, Professor Motulsky concedes that most academics don’t take naturally to public communications, largely because the pressure-cooker production schedule of a newsroom clashes with the methodically rigorous pondering of the faculty member. Where academe dwells on the details, the media outlet wants a message in a minute.

“Academics usually come away frustrated after their first encounter with the media, because they didn’t get a chance to say everything they wanted and in the proper perspective,” says Dr. Motulsky.

He says academics miss opportunities to convey a message because they don’t make themselves available at key moments and, more generally, because they don’t provide for media contact in their regular schedule. That may not be wise, since granting agencies are themselves pressuring professors and researchers to heighten their media profile, so that fund-approving parliamentary committees, as well as the public, see taxpayer dollars being well spent.

“Look at the communications tools that granting agencies design for funded researchers,” he says. “The concern over media visibility is obvious.”

But he knows that elaborate media kits can’t change one key reality: the media decide if and when they need you and want you. Given that challenge, Professor Motulsky believes efforts to gain coverage should weigh more heavily in researchers’ performance appraisals. “You have to consider the demands that this work places on the average scientist and be sure that performance appraisals take it into account.”

And when the call does come, what’s the key to a solid interview? Dr. Motulsky’s mantra: “Be brief or be quiet!” The bottom line is that interviews that work deliver a single message, not a treatise, and Dr. Motulsky thinks that anyone willing to work at it a bit can master the art. Learning to express oneself clearly and simply is the cornerstone.

Practice will help a lot, and so will adjusting one’s overall attitude to the media’s purpose. Academics who stop thinking that the media should be at their service and instead decide to build a media-relations strategy into their professional life can usually sense some benefit to it all. To illustrate, Dr. Motulsky cites a remark from one of his workshop participants: “I don’t really see specific advantages to having a presence in the media, but it does put a kind of aura around your career.”

As for practical media-management tips, Dr. Motulsky stresses the need to prepare, and then to force yourself to write down the title as you’d like to read it – that is, to synthesize. However, don’t try to synthesize years of work off the cuff, he warns, because “you’ll run out of time and miss your main point altogether. Taking just 15 minutes to prepare is worth it, especially if thousands and maybe even hundreds of thousands might be reading or listening.”

It does seem as if the masses and the media want to better understand the issues and phenomena affecting everyday life, and they want them explained, not just by interest groups but by individuals with a broader perspective, greater detachment and deeper knowledge.

Yet, intellectuals are regularly seen as cold, aloof and unable to get a message across – witness Stéphane Dion’s struggles during the federal election. “He may have been criticized for bad messaging, but no one doubted his sincerity or credentials,” Professor Motulsky argues. “That’s why academics and researchers need to polish how they convey their knowledge.”

Professor Motulsky also advises colleagues to value all media, including regional newspapers and local television: “Academics might read the Globe and Mail more often than they do the Calgary Sun, but if you get a chance to send a message to 300,000 people, there’s no reason to skip the opportunity. All the media deserve our time.”

Comment parler aux médias, by Bernard Motulsky and René Vézina, Éditions Transcontinental, collection Entreprendre, Montréal, Quebec, 2008.

Yves Lusignan
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