Dermatologists should use media as a channel to disseminate public health info

Oct 01, 2007, 4:00am

Dermatologists should regard opportunities to speak with members of the media as chances to disseminate information about public health issues such as skin cancer, a communications specialist says. Therefore, physicians should develop messages that they want to get across, as well as prepare delivery using their voice, hands, eyes and body language.

Toronto - If dermatologists act as effective communicators with members of the media, they can potentially alter social behavior, a communications specialist here says.

Speaking to the members of the Canadian Dermatology Association (CDA) here at the CDA's annual meeting, Chris Winsor, an account director with international public relations firm Hill and Knowlton, in Toronto, described three pillars of effective communication: message development, interview control and message delivery.

Crafting the message

"If dermatologists are singing from the same songsheet, they can create conditions for attitudinal change and modify social behavior. We have seen it with the wider use of sunscreens, which is much different from years ago."

Social behavior has been changed in other lifestyle areas because of effective messaging on public health issues such as alcohol consumption and driving or tobacco use, Mr. Winsor notes.

"As dermatologists, there are a number of message opportunities that they will have," Mr. Winsor says. "Certainly, sun safety is one, as is the use of sunscreens and protective clothing."

The challenge for dermatologists, and other individuals who are interviewed by media, is to convey specific key messages, according to Mr. Winsor, head of Hill and Knowlton's national training practice in Canada.

A former journalist for major print publications in Canada, Mr. Winsor cites several areas in which dermatologists will be called upon to act as spokesmen and can be regarded as opinion leaders, such as skincare, new cosmetic products, skin allergies, common skin conditions and the availability of dermatologists and/or shortage of dermatologists in communities in North America.

"Most dermatologists can probably discuss at length these issues," Mr. Winsor says. "But can they talk succinctly and strategically about them for two or three sentences maximum? To be an effective communicator, whether it's talking about skin allergies or acne, the key is to distill the information to its essence."

Key messages that work are short, substantive, strategic and free of jargon, Mr. Winsor stresses.

Driving the interview

Effective message delivery is instrumental in generating an accurate story with a positive impact.

"Successful communicators don't just answer interview questions literally, they acknowledge where the question is coming from and add message-rich communication," Winsor says. "Skilled communicators think in terms of questions and responses, and not questions and answers."

An exxample of bad communication is the way in which many politicians choose to interact with media, in exchanges often characterized by willful deflection, Mr. Winsor points out.

Dermatologists need to consider what journalists choose to report and how they report when they are involved in a media interview, Mr. Winsor notes.

"What media are doing is essentially story-telling," Mr. Winsor says. "They call it 'news' for a reason, because implicitly there has been a change of some kind. The question then is, how do we play to this fact? Are there studies or a launch of a campaign that can be leveraged to bring new sensitivity to an issue?"

The CDA holds an annual sun safety awareness week in June. This year, the theme of that campaign, which media widely covered in Canada, was the outdoor worker.

"The message (of sun safety) is the same, but what is new is the focus on the outdoor worker," says Mr. Winsor, who views the campaign as a success. "The point is that there are many ways to feed the news media's insatiable appetite for newness or novelty."

Key messages have a better chance of being reflected in media coverage if interviewees can take control of the interview. To ensure those messages are reflected, successful communicators employ techniques such as using bridging or reinforcing phrases in their speech, Winsor notes.