Albert H. Lewandowski, DVM
Escapes, accidents, tragedies, deaths, and controversial decisions at an institution may require the zoo veterinarian to emerge as a spokesman. Dealing with the press and other media, even under the best of circumstances, can be an uncomfortable experience.
Using the approach that you are conversing with a concerned, but uninformed acquaintance or neighbor helps establish in your own mind a working frame of reference. You are the expert, a caring, skilled medical professional, whether you happen to feel that way or not at the time.
Do your homework! Know the facts. Be informed. Present the material in a straightforward manner.
Avoid being condescending. Use terms, situations, and examples that the writer can relate to. Explain the situation as you would to your parents. Journalists may not have eight to 10 years of advanced medical training, but most are intelligent, perceptive people. Some may have an agenda, but most do not and are honestly, just doing their job.
Be consistent in what you present. Keep your message simple. Pare down extraneous information. Cluttering up the conversation with a dozen differential diagnoses to impress someone with your vast knowledge will only serve to confuse them. Your message will be lost.
Having a primary working diagnosis with one or two differentials will allow the reporter to focus the coverage better but allow you the flexibility to shift the emphasis of your workup as new information becomes available.
Don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know but keep in the forefront that you have laboratory tests pending, histopathology under examination, and have been and are consulting other “experts” in the field from other institutions.
Have strength of conviction in your arguments. If you don’t believe what you’re saying, you certainly won’t be able to convince anyone else of your stand on an issue.
Demonstrate compassion and empathy for the creatures in your care. You may be the medical professional who bases decisions on scientific evidence, factual data, and medical reality. You are also the kid who became a veterinarian because you liked animals. None of us are going to get rich being a zoo veterinarian.
Lastly, arm yourself with honesty, credibility, and competence. Unless you have established a reputation for these traits with your own keepers and staff, a perceptive journalist will sense the disparity. The most precious compliment paid is from the keeper who thanks you for all you’ve done…and the animal died. With support like this, dealing with the press in trying times becomes immensely easier.