Monday, March 10, was a busy day for the public affairs staff at APA. That morning, The New York Times broke the news that New York's then-governor, Eliot Spitzer, had allegedly patronized a pricey call-girl operation. Suddenly, reporters from all over the country were trying to explain why a crime-busting politician would have torpedoed his career so dramatically--and they needed the expertise of psychologists to help them do it.
"The New York Post, the Associated Press, Newsweek, CBS-TV, even Vogue magazine wanted to talk to psychologists about why some public figures think they're invulnerable, why they dabble in dangerous liaisons and what makes them think they can get away with it," says Rhea K. Farberman, APA's executive director of public and member communications.
APA quickly gave the media what they needed, thanks to its Media Referral Service, a database of nearly 2,000 psychologists who are ready to talk authoritatively on some 1,000 aspects of human behavior and psychology.
"I must've done 10 or 12 interviews in one day," says Frank Farley, PhD, a psychology professor at Temple University and a past APA president. He ticked off the New York Times, USA Today, Bloomberg News, the Chicago Tribune "and a couple of radio shows--I don't even remember them all."
And the excitement didn't end. By Tuesday, the story had shifted to Silda Wall Spitzer, the then-governor's spouse, and their three children. Media were contacting APA for psychologists who could explain why political wives stand by their men under such difficult, not to mention humiliating, circumstances and the psychological impact on their kids.
Once again, APA turned to the Media Referral Service, and once again, psychologists helped the American public understand the kinds of thinking that underlie human behavior.
Diana Kirschner, PhD, a marriage expert based in New York City, appeared on ABC's "World News Tonight" and "Nightline" to talk about the dynamics that cause some people to be self-righteous and the kinds of public messages a wife sends by appearing publicly beside her cheating husband.
She and Farley have been part of APA's Media Referral Service for many years and both agree that the experience has been rewarding and fun. But beyond that, they say it's invaluable for psychology.
"It's a really great way to educate the public about the latest thinking about various areas," Kirschner says. "It's a way to get information out to the larger public; I think it's important for psychologists to share their knowledge."
Heeding the call to take the call
Farley, who is president of APA's Div. 46 (Media), says he views media interviews as "a final stage of research and scholarship, which is to tell the public what we know."
"We tend to keep [our knowledge] in the family of psychology," he says. "It sometimes reminds me of a medieval monastery with monks sitting around scrivening." Noting that taxpayer money is behind much psychological research, he says the public "has a right to know."
Farley says the profession has been hurt by the media-stoked image of "pop psychology" and the use of terms such as "psychobabble." In his view, the antidote for these negative images is more public exposure of knowledgeable, articulate psychologists with research-backed interpretations of human behavior.
APA has long been the go-to organization for reporters because its members are the pre-eminent experts in the field and because its public affairs staff understands how to serve journalists' needs, says Farberman. In fact, APA has a reputation for responding quickly, with the right expert who can express himself or herself in plain language, even when the story is about a highly complex psychological issue, she says.
APA's database of "experts on call" is a powerful tool for APA staff, as they respond to media requests. It includes names, phone numbers and e-mail addresses of some 2,000 APA members--and also information on relevant articles and books they've published, their areas of expertise, notes on how much media experience they've had and whether it was with print or broadcast, sometimes even the best numbers and times of day to call.
"We can search the database by 995 different topics, including combinations of several topics at once, to really zero in on just the right expert," says Pamela Willenz, APA's public affairs manager, who oversees the database. "In the past year, we've used the service to respond to more than 1,400 media inquiries."
There are several ways a member can get listed in the database, Farberman explains. Many simply volunteer to serve as experts on hot topics such as school violence, stress, bullying, positive psychology, deception and money. APA staff also find potential experts through APA journal articles and other scholarly publications, professional conferences, association groups and quotes in the mainstream media. In addition, APA staff, members, boards and committees recommend experts for the media referral service, she says.
Get ready for your close-up
APA preps its media experts when they join the system. The Media Referral Service sign-up form asks how much, if any, media experience the member has, and the public affairs staff provides a brochure that runs through some of the do's and don'ts of media interviews. "We often present media training workshops at APA's Annual Convention and state association meetings, where our members can get more in-depth training," Farberman says.
Kirschner also recommends joining Div. 46 and taking part in its lectures and workshops. "And please tell [journalists] to make sure to spell your name right, and say that you're a psychologist; don't be shy about that."
Psychologists being interviewed by the news media should also request that they be identified as "Dr.," Farberman adds.
Farley advises preparation and simplicity.
"Keeping it direct, simple, straightforward and short is very important for the listener or viewer," he says. "Be ready on the way in; know what the main points are that you want to get across ... a leading interviewer once told me, 'Keep it short, keep it simple, and, if you can, make it funny.'"
In addition, public affairs screens media requests to let psychologists know what to expect--Is it a print or broadcast outlet? Live or taped? What's the slant of the story? Will there be other guests or call-ins? "And we are available to answer members' questions or help them in any way so that their interviews go well," Willenz adds.
Kirschner says she enjoys the opportunities to communicate with a larger audience, noting that APA has so many good experts that being part of the service doesn't intrude on the rest of her professional life. "You can always say no if you're very busy, if you have a full clinical day or a full research day."
Farley advocates doing as much media as you can. "Take the call," he says. "[The media] are just going to roll on and get somebody who knows vastly less than you do, and that hurts us all."
Kim I. Mills is APA's associate executive director for public and member communications.