Jan 29, 2015
Meet the Press

Being media-savvy may not be in your job description, but it can go a long way toward boosting your image and promoting the athletic training profession.

By Abigail Funk

Abigail Funk is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning. She can be reached at [email protected].

You’ve just arrived at the practice field to cover the football team and a newspaper reporter approaches you. She explains that she’s doing an article about the team’s playoff game this weekend and is looking for more details about the injuries of some of the players.

You quickly shoo her off, telling her you just don’t have time. You need to get your equipment set up, talk to the offensive line coach about the center’s nagging ankle injury, and watch the kids warm up. There are also HIPAA regulations to think about. And, well, you really just have no interest in talking to a reporter—it’s not what your job is about.

Or is it? If one aspect of your job is to support the athletic department, if you want to be seen as a leader, and if you are interested in promoting the athletic training profession, maybe you can give up five minutes to talk to that reporter. Maybe being quoted can help achieve some of those important goals.

Most athletic trainers shy away from talking to the media. They are not trained to do so and they are wary of reporters who don’t speak their language. But some are learning that the media can be an ally—if you know how to work with them.

Why Talk?

The first reason to consider talking to the media is that your words can promote your athletic department. When reporters rely on coaches for injury information, there is a chance for inaccuracies, which can make the program look bad. However if a quote from you, as a certified athletic trainer, explains the injury with clarity and accurate terms, the public sees the athletic department as professional and in tune with the sports medical needs of its athletes.

“In the world of sports, reporters’ closest contacts are usually the coaches,” says Marion Vruggink, MS, LAT, ATC, Head Athletic Trainer at West LaFayette (Ind.) High School. “The athletic trainer, though, is the best person to talk to about injuries because we’re the ones who provide care, and we’ll have more accurate information than a coach.

“For example, a reporter may say that they heard an athlete is ‘questionable’ for an upcoming game, whereas you know the athlete is ‘probable,'” continues Vruggink. “That’s your chance to correct the reporter about something a coach may not have picked up on. Making sure the media have information that is accurate is more important than we often realize.”

A second reason to cooperate with media outlets is to promote the profession of athletic training. What you say to a reporter helps the public understand how critical athletic training is to the success of athletic programs. It may also help to expose the public to what athletic trainers do behind the scenes.

“We are always trying to educate the public about our profession,” says Mark Gilbert, LAT, ATC, Head Athletic Trainer at Granbury (Texas) High School. “For instance, if you can make sure a reporter has our title as ‘athletic trainer’ and not just ‘trainer,’ that’s a great use of the media.”

“The media can be a window into the athletic training profession for many people,” says Artie Poitras, MEd, ATC, Head Athletic Trainer at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. “Whether it’s for a newspaper article or a human interest piece on a local cable channel, it’s the only way a lot of people will ever hear an athletic trainer speak.”

Tim Neal, MS, ATC, Head Athletic Trainer at Syracuse University, says that early in his career he shied away from talking to reporters, but more recently has found them to be a great conduit for educating the public. In 2001, when a referee collapsed on the field from cardiac arrest and Neal and his staff helped to save his life, Neal was bombarded with interview requests.

“I used that event as a platform to educate people on the capabilities of athletic trainers and the need for AEDs,” he says. “I then found that the local media were asking me to talk about various health topics like heat-related injuries. The media are good vehicles for an athletic trainer to get information out about common injuries and prevention techniques—especially to parents and their kids.”

You may also want to talk to the media to further your own career. Gilbert was contacted by the NATA after one of his student-athletes suffered a catastrophic neck injury, to speak at the national convention on the topic. He has since had over two dozen public-speaking opportunities.

“It’s because of word of mouth saying I was a good presenter, I guess,” says Gilbert. “I’ve always been a big proponent of student athletic training education, and it’s a lot like teaching a class. I’ve gotten more comfortable with the whole idea of public speaking and talking to the media over time. It’s definitely helped my career.”

Hey, Over Here!

So how do you go about shifting the spotlight in your direction? The first thing you can do is inform the people you work with that you have an interest in helping out with media inquiries. “Tell your athletic director you’re interested in talking to the media, and explain that you think it’s important for people to be educated and understand what an athletic trainer does,” says Kathleen Hessert, President and owner of Sports Media Challenge, a consulting firm specializing in working with the media. “Most people don’t like to talk to the media, so if you volunteer to your athletic director that you’d like to, they’ll most likely say, ‘Great! Go right ahead, I think that would be really good exposure.'”

Also tell the coaches you work with that you’re available for interviews. Discuss when and why you, as an athletic trainer, should answer reporters’ questions. “The coach is probably the number one contact a reporter goes to,” says David Wilson, LAT, ATC, Communications Chair at the Indiana Athletic Trainers’ Association. “Hopefully if a reporter asks about an injury, the coach will redirect the question to you as the athletic trainer. Some coaches also have radio morning talk shows, and they’re always looking for something that can benefit the community, so maybe the coach can have an ‘athletic trainer’s corner’ segment for injury prevention or helpful tips. It never hurts to ask.”

Third, let your sports information director know you are available for comments. This simple step worked well for Poitras. “Our sports information director brought reporters to hockey practice and introduced me to them,” says Poitras. “So I’ve developed a good relationship with all the local sports reporters and photographers throughout the years and know them all by name.

“When I was first quoted in the Boston Herald, it was in regard to hockey injuries,” Poitras continues. “Now, if the reporter needs any sports medicine advice for a story, he knows I’m here and willing to help out.”

That relationship has led to broader coverage for Poitras and UMass-Lowell. “Their health and science editor called the sports desk looking for an athletic trainer, so the hockey reporter gave her my contact information and I was quoted in a story about men’s and women’s sprinting times in that section of the paper,” says Poitras.

Vruggink suggests that instead of waiting for a reporter to approach you, go to them. “Typically, athletic trainers are very busy people,” says Vruggink. “But if they have the time, they might offer to write a weekly question and answer or health and nutrition advice section for their local paper. Some of the health editors are very interested in that type of thing, and it helps introduce to the public what we do.”

Wilson agrees that going straight to the broadcast or print outlets that cover your teams is a good idea. “For example,” he says, “send them a paragraph about how your staff helped out for free at a youth event, and they may give you a call.”

Do’s and Don’ts

When you’ve never been quoted before, talking to the media can be intimidating. What if I say the wrong thing? What if they misquote me or I sound stupid? There is an art to representing yourself well through the media, but it can be learned. “Working with the media is a skill that needs to be learned and practiced in order to get good at,” says Hessert.

To start, listen carefully to the reporter’s questions, and take some time to think about your answers. “Try to boil your message down to a single, concise, high-impact sentence, says Hessert.” Use complete sentences and concrete terms, and speak slowly and clearly.

In addition, don’t feel constricted by the way the question is phrased. “If a reporter says, ‘Give me two reasons why something shouldn’t happen,’ the person will generally give two reasons,” says Hessert. “What if there are three or four reasons, or no reasons at all? Don’t let the format of a question box you in.”

And always think about the audience. “We also have to remember who our interview is going to reach,” says Poitras. “They may not care that the athlete is out because of a second-degree medial collateral ligament tear, so using the term ‘knee injury’ when talking about it may instead be a better choice.”

Ray Begovich, Associate Professor of Journalism at Franklin College—where he teaches public relations courses and conducts media training for various professions, including coaches and athletes—says that knowing your message and intended audience ahead of time will keep you on track to answering questions intelligently. “Each time you deal with the media, you should have a message that you want to get across to the various ‘publics’ you care about,” says Begovich. “Your publics may include players, parents, administrators, coaches, and sports experts. Remember that the media are not the real target of your message, but are simply conduits to your intended public audiences.”

As you become more comfortable with answering questions, the next step is to frame the information the media outlet is reporting on. That means you aren’t just answering the question, but thinking about the message you want to get across.

“Too often, interviewees think they have to wait for a reporter to ask the right question,” says Begovich. “And too often, that question never comes—in which case the door is closed on getting your message across. The bottom line is to have something to say and make sure you say it.”

Hessert agrees that it is key to have a goal heading into an interview. “Don’t go into an interview simply answering a reporter’s questions, therefore giving the questioner all of the power,” she says. “Know that the journalist’s questions are purely vehicles for you to educate the public about whatever the situation may be.”

Also know that it’s okay to ask what questions the reporter has in mind before the interview takes place. When Gilbert was interviewed several years ago by a local television station after some student-athletes were hit by lightning, he wanted to know what the reporter was going to ask him about.

“I told the reporter it would help me give thought-through, concrete answers and I wouldn’t stumble through it,” says Gilbert. “That way, I also wasn’t blindsided by anything I wasn’t prepared to answer or didn’t know the answer to. And the reporter was completely fine with that.”

The opportunity for a television interview may also arise, and Begovich has some tips for looking professional to your viewing audience. “Always look at the reporter, not the camera, and control your body language in order to come across as calm and confident,” he says. “Dress successfully, not as a distraction, and speak in brief, meaningful sentences.”

In addition to what you should do when talking to the media, there are a few things to be careful to avoid. “Never say a negative,” says Hessert. “Don’t let emotional words or phrases in a question stop you in your tracks. If the reporter asks a question with a negative word in it, like a player ‘choked’ tonight, don’t repeat it. Take the time to rephrase it in your head and leave the negative out.”

Begovich adds that when being recorded by either a print journalist or on television, whenever a microphone is near you, assume it’s on. “Don’t say anything before or after the official interview you don’t want broadcast,” he says. “And if you make a mistake during an interview, it’s okay, just correct yourself.”

Getting to Know the Media

The final step in working well with the media is to understand the profession and some of its nuances. For example, know that journalists often work on short deadlines. “Journalism is a deadline-driven business,” says Begovich. “Sometimes you’ll need to drop what you’re doing in order to meet a journalist’s deadline. But media-savvy professionals in all fields know that media coverage is well worth the schedule adjustments it sometimes requires.”

Also understand that being recorded on tape is a sign of a journalist seeking to do a professional job. “Don’t be nervous when a print reporter pulls out a tape recorder,” Begovich says. “Instead, be glad. The reporter is more likely to quote you accurately.”

Finally, know that the media are not always looking for something controversial to reveal about your program. “The media are not your enemy,” says Poitras. “They’re not bad people. They’re just like you and me—trying to do their job. It’s not bad to be friendly with them. You just have to watch your step.”

So next time that reporter approaches you, remember that talking to them can help your own career, your athletic department, and the athletic training profession to gain exposure. The more you can put yourself in the spotlight, the more the public will understand what athletic training is about and see how vital the profession is to the sports world.

Sidebar: HIPAA & FERPA

To comply with the US Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), athletic trainers do need to be cautious when talking to the media. But this should not be a stumbling block or an excuse to back out of the spotlight.

HIPAA and FERPA privacy rules are national laws that protect both educational and medical records of individuals. In regard to injuries, HIPAA states that a “covered entity,” which includes most colleges and universities, may not disclose an athlete’s health care information without his or her permission, which may be given verbally or through a HIPAA information release form.

At the high school level, because you’re dealing with minors, it’s up to the athlete’s parent or guardian if they want to make any injury information public. Mark Gilbert, LAT, ATC, Head Athletic Trainer at Granbury (Texas) High School, has passed many an inquiry off to a student-athlete’s parent, explaining that he isn’t at liberty to discuss the situation without their permission. Most college student-athletes sign a HIPAA release form. Find out which athletes have not signed the form, if any.

If you can’t answer a reporter’s questions due to HIPAA or FERPA laws, explain this to the reporter instead of saying “no comment.” “Those two words are a red flag to journalists and you can see their competitive juices start flowing,” says Kathleen Hessert, President and owner of Sports Media Challenge, a consulting firm specializing in working with the media. “They’ll think there’s a good story there somewhere, and try to find out what it is.”

Gilbert has found that most reporters don’t understand or even know about HIPAA and FERPA law, and that’s when athletic trainers make the mistake of saying, ‘no comment.’ “A sportswriter called me about an injured athlete, and I told him up front that I wasn’t going to be able to tell him much,” says Gilbert. “He wanted to know why, and I realized he had no idea about HIPAA and FERPA law.

“I explained to him that I wasn’t trying to hide anything, but that these are federal restrictions,” Gilbert continues. “Communication in our business is so critical in every aspect, including with the media.”

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