As I write this column, the death of two young Canadian boys, allegedly killed by a python, remains under investigation. As of yet, there do not seem to be any conclusive findings. The prevailing theory is that the boys were killed by the snake foundin the room where they had been sleeping during an overnight stay with a friend in a New Brunswick home.
There has been little evidence offered by the media on the particulars of this case. Yet before there was even time to perform autopsies on the children, the media generally covered this story with great certainty. Headlines read “Snake Kills Two Boys,” “Canada Snake Attack” and more.
The media’s approach to the story reflects its inherent fascination with reptiles. There are dozens of severe and sometimes fatal encounters between people and dogs, people and horses, and even people and cats every week. Those don’t necessarily make national news or generate splashy, front-page headlines. Exotics, on the other hand, often make headlines simply by turning up in unexpected places: Snake Found in Toilet Bowl! That’s a story? Maybe not to you or me, but to a lot of folks, it is.
Tales of wild or exotic animal attacks are, in media terms, “sexy.” Stories like these have a proven track record of attracting the interest of the general public. It’s the same reason the antics of celebrities often crowd out important stories about economics or science.
Add to this the fact that, in general, most reporters tend to do well if they have a broad general knowledge, but they are not required to have real expertise in any particular field. Thus, they can be misled in complex situations, and may not have a terribly critical eye when arcane knowledge might be of use.
Over the years, when stories like this have a local angle or are of very high profile, I have become something of a go-to guy for local media to interview. I’d like to pass on some of the things I have learned about how to best serve them, the truth, our industry and your own business. I would recommend that, whenever possible, whether the story is negative or positive—and believe me, most are negative or they wouldn’t be stories—working with the media is to your advantage. Do not shy away from them. Rather, work carefully with them, and invite them back.
1) Be thoughtful in what you say, and enunciate clearly and precisely. Many years ago, I toured a reporter through my store. The story turned out quite well, and I was pleased—with one exception. One of the animals I had demonstrated for her was a lined day gecko, which ended up in the story as a “blind day gecko!” To this day, I am not sure whether I slurred my words or she simply misheard me, but I have been very careful with my speech ever since.
2) Don’t express opinions without being very sure of yourself. I was recently interviewed about an arrest in Southern California in a massive case of animal abuse. I knew of the people arrested and certainly had an opinion not based on the story, but on what I knew of those involved. However, I kept that opinion to myself. I told the reporter that I did not have enough information about the specifics of the case itself to know how much of it was true. If the initial story had been built on something more than just accusations, I might have been more forthcoming, but it wasn’t. I have never been sued for libel and have no intention of changing that.
3) Remember that the media feeds upon itself. When I opened my store many years ago, I carefully chose one particular newspaper column to which I gave a press release. Sure enough, based on a few sentences in that column, I had every newspaper, television and radio station in town knocking at my door to get their version of it. In other words, if you do well in an initial appearance, not only will that media source be back in the future, but every other outlet will note the story and your contribution.
4) Reporters are not experts in your field. You are. Act that way. Be sure of your facts, and act in a measured, professional manner. Tell the truth. Tell it in a friendly, positive way. On the other hand, if you are asked something you don’t know, don’t make something up. You will come off as more credible and trustworthy if you admit the limits of what you know.
5) Avoid looking like a deer in headlights. Personally, I have never been camera or recorder shy, but if you are, keep these things in mind: never look straight into the camera; rather, look at the interviewer or even at a single point in space. It will help you forget the camera is even there. Also, in almost every situation, if you fumble your words or think of a way to more clearly express yourself, you can simply ask to do a second take. That takes the pressure off.
6) Most important of all, remember that you are not only speaking for yourself. In some sense, you are representing your business, our industry and hobbyists throughout the world. Keep us all in mind.
The media has a vested interest in telling an exciting, flashy story, but they are also constrained to tell the truth as best they can—well, most of them, anyway. You can turn their natural interest in our field to your publicity advantage, but only if you deal with them in a savvy but straightforward manner. Do not be shy about asking a news reporter to make sure to mention the name of your business in the captions; after all, your footage is valuable to them. But always be valuable to them by expressing a reasoned, measured opinion in their broadcast.
Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 30 years. His store, the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the oldest and largest herptile specialty stores in the U.S.