Want to be media friendly? Wear dark clothes and don't argue

September 21, 2001

Canadian academics are showing a greater willingness to speak to reporters and are increasingly grooming for the cameras, according to media trainers.

As a growing number of niche publications and television channels look for commentators on social issues, professors have taken to the role with less hostility than in the past, said Bernard Motulsky, communications director at Montreal University.

Three years ago, when the university began its taped training sessions, Dr Motulsky detected scorn for the media. "Professors were angry at journalists, denouncing them for not being smart enough to discuss intelligent subjects. Now they seem to be more realistic. They understand that if they want their research to go public, they have a role to play in its dissemination."

McGill University has put out a tip sheet for its professors. Included among the advice is to return calls quickly, never get into an argument with the journalist, avoid bridging lulls of silence with conversation and wear dark colours to convey authority.

University of British Columbia professor Jane Buxton, who has been media trained for her job as director of the community medicine residency programme, sees the need for these training tools in an age when the public has much more access to information but often needs an unbiased person to identify credible messages.

Journalist Royal Orr, who has media-trained several senior staff members of McGill's medical school, reminds researchers that certain details bore the public. He related how he was preparing one mould expert who had been asked to comment for the federal housing authority. He let her know that it was more important that she tell the public how this would affect their health than to inform them of the mould's Latin name.

Some of the biggest mistakes come from academics who get baited by a journalist and try to engage in opinion, Mr Orr said.

Professors are taught to speak in short clips and media officials are forced to do the same thing when trying to obtain that elusive news interview. They have to boil down years of research to a message that, according to University of Calgary's media-relations coordinator Andrew Wark, can be conveyed in five seconds.

Mr Wark received international coverage last September after he wrote of a temple in Yemen that would prove to be as "significant a discovery as the ruins of Pompeii".

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