AAEP’s “On Call” Program helps Communicate Veterinary Information to a General Audience

Veterinarians don’t typically appear on primetime TV, and this fall, when millions of people will tune in to NBC Sports to watch Thoroughbred horse racing at the Breeders’ Cup World Championships in Los Angeles Nov. 1-2, the American Association of Equine Practitioners hopes that’s still the case.

The AAEP’s media assistance program “On Call” has now been active for nearly 20 years. Thirty media-trained veterinarians currently staff the program and make themselves available to print and broadcast media covering thoroughbred races. Generally, the veterinarians are called on to explain injuries and other medical complications that arise in racehorses before or during a race, and work to clarify equine health information for a general audience.

“The Breeders’ Cup is our next event,” said Sally Baker, the Director of Marketing and Public Relations, as well as the staff liaison to the On Call Program, for the AAEP.

“But we always hope we won’t be needed.”

“Most often an interview will involve a specific injury situation – a scratch or something that occurred during the race,” Baker said. “On some of the major broadcasts, like the Triple Crown when they have longer telecasts, our spokesmen will be able to talk about prominent issues in the industry, the use of Lasix, for instance.”

The On Call program was launched in response to the 1990 Breeders’ Cup, after three horses suffered disastrous injuries and had to be euthanized.

“The need for someone to explain the nature of those injuries, and walk people through why decisions that needed to be made were made, became really evident after that race,” Baker said.

On Call officially launched in 1993 after the AAEP sought collaboration throughout the industry on how they could best elevate the public’s knowledge of equine health and safety. The program was designed to make sure that a trained veterinarian who knew how racehorses were trained and was familiar with pre-race procedures, was always on hand to answer media inquiries.

“At the time the program was focused around addressing the lack of information about equine healthcare,” Baker said.

Baker noted that while there was enthusiasm for the program from within the industry, there was some initial hesitation on the part of some of the networks that televised major races.

“There was skepticism as to our motivation, why we wanted to be on the air,” Baker recalled. “It took several years for the program to build the networks’ confidence.”

Growing the confidence of various media outlets was a matter of establishing relationships, Baker said. On Call veterinarians made themselves readily accessible to broadcast commentators and producers, and proved to be a resource by providing practical explanations of equine health issues.

The program has since evolved to become a staple of thoroughbred racing broadcasts. Baker mentioned that fans frequently recognize regular On Call veterinarians at the race track and in 2008 the program was awarded a Special Eclipse Award (horse racing’s version of the Academy Award) for “outstanding achievements in, or contributions to, the sport of Thoroughbred racing.”

Veterinarians who participate in the program attend a day-long media training session through Pedersen/McGrath Associates in Chicago. The session presents On-Call veterinarians with questions and interview topics that are likely to be confronted with when serving as a spokesperson for On Call. While the initial training session is only a day long, On Call representatives are subject to an ongoing evaluation by their media trainers. Every television appearance and interview On Call veterinarians give is reviewed by media trainers, who offer the veterinarians feedback and critiques.

“A lot of emphasis is placed on helping our veterinarians to understand the value of using language that a lay audience can understand,” Baker said.

Baker points to the 2006 Preakness Stakes as an example of the program working exactly as intended. In that race, heavy favorite and Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro broke a hind leg shortly after leaving the starting gate. The On Call veterinarians who were covering the Preakness that day were able to contact the track veterinarian and were able to provide accurate updates about Barbaro’s status to the NBC telecast. On Call then made its veterinarians available to answer questions from the print and broadcast media after the race, and in the days following as Barbaro’s injury and treatment progressed.

“The chain of communication during that incident worked exactly as it should have,” Baker said. “Fifteen minutes after the race concluded our spokesperson was able to explain the injury and the next steps the horse would go through. We met our mission that day of letting the public know exactly what was happening.

Reprinted from from Today’s Veterinary News September 27, 2013 Issue 11