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I have been Vanderbilt University Medical Center's media director for over a decade now. In my role as VUMC's chief publicist I've had the pleasure of working with hundreds of the Medical Center's highly-talented faculty and staff to help get their discoveries or expertise featured on TV, radio and in print.
Because of the high press volume we handle each year, I often think of working in VUMC's Office of News and Public Affairs in equivalent terms of dog-years. One year working with the news media here at Vanderbilt is probably equal to about a decade's worth of activity at many other academic institutions. Working with the news media is an interesting, challenging, and sometimes frustrating job that I love.
Dr. Schaffner and I share the same sentiment. Illness is an unfortunate occurrence, but it happens, and if someone is going to be talking to the media about it, it might as well be a Vanderbilt physician.
Of the more than 1,000 interviews arranged by News and Public Affairs media relations officers during the 2006 fiscal year, we were able to track 14,847 positive mentions of VUMC in the press. Much of this success was the result of Dr. Schaffner's constant participation with our media relations process. In fact, 3,281 placements, or 22 percent of the year's total positive news placements included Dr. Schaffner.
I'm not alone in this assessment of Dr. Schaffner's value to the institution.
"It would be difficult to place a dollar amount on the positive PR value to Vanderbilt resulting from Bill Schaffner's work with the news media. But if we were to perform that calculation, it would be millions of dollars each year," said Joel Lee, associate vice chancellor for Medical Center Communications. "Beyond his responsibilities as a department leader, Bill has a gift for working with the press. Everyone associated with the University should appreciate the high value this brings to our institution's reputation."
Only in the rarest of occurrences does an individual's education, training and years of professional expertise mesh with a chronometer-like ability to calmly, rationally and smoothly express his thoughts and convey complex and frequently politically sensitive public health issues on TV or in newspapers around the world.
Then factor in doing all of this with an audience, which includes your professional peers, who can and will be your sharpest critics.
For the great benefit of Vanderbilt and a concerned public worried about such health concerns as avian flu, smallpox, anthrax, whooping cough, measles, influenza, rabies or myriad other transmissible diseases, Dr. Schaffner volunteers himself for the task of educating the public through the press hundreds of times each year.
"Bill Schaffner is an excellent source for us on infectious disease topics. He is also exceptional explaining complex medical information in a simple, clear way on the air," said Roger Sergel, Managing Editor for Medical Coverage at ABC News. "We have used him regularly to speak with Tim Johnson (ABC News' Medical Editor) and others at ABC News about topics including bird flu, immunizations and staph infections."
It's not always national or international news organizations like ABC, CNN, NBC, CBS, USA Today or The New York Times. Typically, Dr. Schaffner can be found working with Nashville's news media or myriad other magazines, newspapers, radio or TV stations on an almost daily basis to educate people about public health concerns in their communities.
Teaching without seeing students
"I consider myself a representative of Vanderbilt. It's not me, but I am a vehicle. I represent Vanderbilt to the community, and sometimes the community is quite large. It's the nation. I think of this activity as a form of teaching, but I can't see my students," Dr. Schaffner said. "You have to take every media opportunity as the occasion to provide some small coherent bit of information. My style is to do this in a reasonable and reassuring fashion, not to be alarmist, but to put the matter into some perspective and to give people the general impression – and it's true most of the time – that public health and clinical medicine are capable of dealing with whatever the problem may be."
Out of a deep sense of commitment to educate the public about matters of public health, and a very competitive desire to see Vanderbilt's reputation and visibility on par with other high-profile academic medical centers, Dr. Schaffner makes himself available virtually every time he's called upon for an interview request, whether he's in the office or not.
Once, while on vacation at a winery in Sonoma, Calif., with his wife, Lois, he used her cell phone to do a radio interview about anthrax. He has done numerous radio and print interviews from their vacation home in Captiva Island, Fla. And his off-hours media interviews have ranged from the routine (from taxis and airplanes) to the quirky (from the front seat of a tow truck after his car broke down on the highway).
He also serves an active role on the national stage working with distinguished infectious diseases prevention organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID).
"Dr. Schaffner has played a key role over the past several years in defining and articulating for NFID the most important public health messages on immunization and prevention of infectious diseases," said Len Novick, executive director of the NFID.
In fact, it seems as if Dr. Schaffner was destined for a career where his medical expertise and work with the news media would intersect.
"The first time I appeared in the news media happened as a Vanderbilt
resident in 1963 or 1964," he said. "The reporter was writing about dying patients. What is it like to extend care to a patient and then have the patient die? Obviously, this is an aspect of a physician's job. So I was asked a number of questions about how I manage this; what's the emotional aspect; does it affect treatment plans; and several other questions."
Even though this was decades, and literally thousands of interviews ago, Dr. Schaffner has vivid memories when describing this experience.
"We were doing morning report
with Dr. David Rogers (chairman of the Department of Medicine from 1957-1968), and the reporter was obviously on hand to interview him about this topic as he was the senior faculty member. On the spot the reporter got the idea to interview a junior physician. I got fished out of the group and was interviewed. And it was OK," he said.
He won't describe his first physician experience with the news media as Zen-like, but it had to be close.
Prior to attending medical school at Cornell, Dr. Schaffner worked in the
theater while in college at Yale. This experience would lay a solid foundation.
"I was attracted to the notion of communicating with an audience the way people on stage communicate with an audience, bringing the audience into a narrative structure or an emotional moment the people on stage create that can be meaningful," he said. "I enjoyed doing that and I think that's why I was attracted to working with the reporter because I saw it as something similar."
Practicing his craft
Dr. Schaffner fulfilled his selective-service obligation in the mid-1960s by spending two years as a commissioned officer in the United States Public Health Service assigned to the Communicable Disease Center in Atlanta (now known as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and the State Health Department in Rhode Island.
"Through a series of events I found myself within a few months in charge of communicable disease control in that state. It's not a large state, but at the time it had a population of almost 1 million," he said. "Because I was the acting state epidemiologist, from time to time television and print reporters asked me about the kinds of things one gets asked about in public health: influenza, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and one communicable disease issue or another. I realized working with the news media was part of my responsibilities and I liked it."
There is both art and skill necessary for working with reporters to ensure they get what they need to effectively communicate the frequently complex messages about medicine and health. These early experiences proved the perfect opportunity for Dr. Schaffner to practice his craft.
In the 1960s and early 1970s TV news editing technology wasn't what it is today. Intuitively, he learned one of the most important points of working with the news media – if you can make a reporter's job easier, he or she will want to work with you again.
"I would ask the reporter how much time they had committed to tell the story. They would already know this before they came to meet with me. I learned that if I could do my narrative in one take, with no cuts, that's exactly what would air on the news that night," he said. "So I developed a clock in my head to count off the time the reporter told me they had. I would try to time my answers, knowing the reporter would have several questions. The reporters liked this because I tried to understand how it is they do their job and tried to help make it easier, and at the same time communicate the essential message."
And then came AIDS
His sporadic experiences with the news media in the 1960s and 1970s provided the necessary tools for the rigors of what lay ahead in the 1980s, when public hysteria erupted following the discovery of AIDS.
"At the time of the discovery of the virus we now know as AIDS, I had two positions at Vanderbilt. I was the chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine, and I was head of the Infectious Diseases division within the Department of Medicine," he said. "I also work closely with the Tennessee Department of Health, and was the person at Vanderbilt with the best links to the CDC."
There was much confusion and fear in the early days of the AIDS epidemic. A terrified nation was in need of timely and accurate information about a deadly, mysterious virus that was slowly spreading across the land.
"All of a sudden I was in everyone's crosshairs for all of those reasons," Dr. Schaffner recalls. "I got a lot of information because of those contacts. I knew about the latest recommendations, the latest data, and not only did Vanderbilt University Medical Center designate me as their official spokesperson for AIDS, so did the Nashville Academy of Medicine. So when they received media requests they would send reporters over here. And frankly, at that time my colleague at the Tennessee Department of Health was media-shy. I was at the center of what I call public AIDS education."
The fear over AIDS was similar to the level of alarm over avian influenza, except with AIDS the virus was already here among us.
"I take quiet pride that in the decade of the 1980s and well into the 1990s, I was a person who locally was able to be a voice of education and reasonableness about HIV," he said.
"There were people who were much more radical in one direction, and many other people who were more radical in another direction. I was always the middle focal point. I had friends from all over. I tried to take issues and opinions from the extremes and go to the middle and make them work, and in the process make people understand that fear and panic, as well as isolation and rejection, were unacceptable, that we in public health could take care of this problem. All of that came to pass and I'd like to think we represented Vanderbilt pretty well."
Dr. Schaffner, after participating in thousands of media interviews over the course of his career, has his technique down to a science. He says he is no longer nervous when speaking with members of the press. However, he takes each encounter seriously and also as a great opportunity to educate the public while simultaneously promoting Vanderbilt. He's taken his responsibility one step further by conducting mini media training sessions with some of the younger infectious diseases faculty, so that they, too, will be available to handle the volumes of media calls we get each day.
Good publicity: Priceless
Many of Dr. Schaffner's physician colleagues here at Vanderbilt and elsewhere have a high degree of respect for his seemingly effortless interactions with members of the press. He makes it look easy even though frequently it is anything but, and like the consummate teammate, makes all of his colleagues at VUMC look better in the process. Perhaps he is more modest about all this than he should be, because the value to the public and to VUMC is priceless.
"Some reporting out there can be sensational when it comes to matters like SARS, bird flu, bioterrorism events or smallpox vaccine and its threat. When people hear things like that they feel helpless or out of control," he said.
"But if you can tell people there is a public health and clinical structure in place; the hospital is open; the clinic is open; the doctors and nurses are informed. If you get sick we can take care of you. There are many things we can do to help prevent the problem. Listen to us and we'll give you good information.
"All of these things, which are reasonable and true, help put things in
perspective and lower the collective temperature that some people are trying to turn up. I'm given to understand this is useful. People tell me on a fairly regular basis that they get a sense of reassurance there is a degree of control out there."
In addition to dialing down a reporter's fear about a potentially alarming health topic while adding significant understanding so the reporter can put a serious public health matter in proper perspective, Dr. Schaffner has also had some fun with the press.
"It was fun sitting in the Vanderbilt studio early in the morning and conversing with Katie Couric on the set of the Today Show. She's famously perky, but I think
I matched her in perkiness," he said with
During one of Pope John Paul II's bouts with pneumonia just before his death, The New York Times, the nation's newspaper of record, quoted only one United States physician about the disease and the Pope's struggle – Dr. Schaffner. As he said about the placement, "That isn't so shabby."
So the next time you turn on your local or network TV news, or pick up a newspaper and see Dr. Schaffner's comments, you'll know the rest of the story on his journey to this position – one of the most visible faces of Vanderbilt. VM