Is your physician effectively conveying your message?

Establishing a “paper trail,” or writing articles on a regular basis for medical journals and healthcare publications, is an effective way for physicians to boost their credibility and increase their visibility with their constituents.

But there’s another way for physicians to separate themselves from the pack: Taking on the role as executive spokesperson for their practice, hospital or medical provider group.

Unfortunately, it’s not a role that many physicians relish, what with most of their time spent taking care of their patients.

However, by encouraging practicing physicians to be executive spokespeople, medical groups/hospitals/associations send a strong message to their stakeholders: As the health care system grows more and more complex, practicing physicians are best suited to communicate that complexity to the media, medical affiliates, etc.

It’s important to note that having physicians act as executive spokespeople is not a zero-sum game vis-à-vis communications professionals.

Depending on the subject matter, physicians can tag team with PR executives and respond to questions in ways that play to each other’s individual strengths. Then there are those media situations in which doctors should go it alone.

With that in mind, here are a few tips for how physicians and their communications teams can position doctors as executive spokespeople.

  1. Sharpen media training. Sure, it’s one thing to pick as your executive spokesperson a physician who is media savvy and able to articulate complicated medical subjects. But it’s another thing when the medical organization is incurring a crisis and the spokesperson is under fire from reporters demanding answers. That’s why it’s crucial that executive spokespersons receive regular media training so they are prepared for most any type of media situation. With consistent media training, physicians get more comfortable dealing with the press. They get a better sense of how to telegraph questions and not get thrown by hostile and/or unfair questions. Communication pros working in-house can boost their value with the C-suite by teaching physicians not only how to prepare themselves for questions they may not expect from the press, but how to “bridge” to the message at hand when reporters take the questions in a different direction. By committing to a few media-training sessions annually, physicians grow a lot more comfortable with the process and how to effectively leverage their expertise.
  2. Expand speaking opportunities. Dealing with the media is core to being an executive spokesperson, of course, whether that’s answering questions regarding a new operating procedure or providing details about remote surgery. But doctors who serve as executive spokespeople should not limit themselves to press conferences and media interviews. Working closely with communications pros, physicians should scope out relevant events and conferences and make themselves available as guest speakers. The benefits of going on the conference circuit are twofold: Doctors are able to spread the message of their organization and simultaneously sharpen their industry profile. Networking opportunities provide a bonus.
  3. Humanize the message. Having a good bedside manner is not for medical patients alone. When delivering news to the media—whether benign or grave—physicians have an opportunity to put a human face on what in many cases is a large, bureaucratic organization. When it comes to health care, engaging the media during a press conference or impromptu Q&A is not so removed from engaging patients/consumers. Doctors need to break down complicated information so lay people can understand. They must readily answer the same question again and again and be quick with a metaphor that can help to illustrate the topic/medical procedure. They need to be, well, patient, which goes a long way in building relationships with health-care reporters. And despite the seriousness of health care it’s OK for physicians to toss a little levity into the proceedings every now and again.

For aspiring spokespeople, media training is crucial. So is cultivating relationships with stakeholders and members of the press. But the most important ingredient for success is commitment. Physicians must be eager to educate the media and other stakeholders. They have to be willing to find the time for follow-up interviews and tout research outcomes that may not excite the press.

Before they embark on the process, physicians have to develop a sturdy balance between their patient work and their duties as spokesperson. Otherwise, the exercise may turn out to be counterproductive.

By Liam Collopy, Executive Vice President