One Question I’ve Never Been Asked…Until Now

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on March 11, 2013 – 6:02 AM

I recently provided media training to a man who deals with a few controversial issues in his line of work.

When we sat down to do a mock interview, he answered the more straightforward questions with relative ease. But when I began asking him about some of the particularly thorny issues he contends with, I noticed that one of his hands began to shake.

As a journalist, that change in his body language signaled something important to me. It told me that he was uncomfortable with the more difficult topic—and that he might have been hiding information from me.

As it turns out, I read the situation completely wrong.

The man shared with me that he has Parkinson’s disease. Although his increased stress level could have resulted in tremors, there’s a chance that his hands would have started shaking anyway.

So he asked a question I’ve never been asked before: “Should I tell reporters that I have Parkinson’s?”

After pausing for a moment, I answered that he should. Journalists occasionally report on an interview subject’s body language—and without knowing about the man’s disease, they too could form an incorrect conclusion.

I’d offer a caveat for high-profile executives of companies where continuity is an issue (Apple’s Steve Jobs comes to mind). In his case, information about his medical prognosis would have been deemed newsworthy—and reporters would likely have included that information in their stories.

But in my client’s case, there’s no compelling reason to include his personal medical record in a news story. And I suspect that most journalists would allow him to redo a take in which his tremors were particularly noticeable.

What do you think? Would you have offered him the same advice, or would you have encouraged him to keep his disease private? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Comments (12)

  1. By Mike:

    I think the answer is dead-on and I would add that the reporter should be informed as early as possible when the interview is being set up. It’s nothing to be ashamed of and the reporter will appreciate knowing going in that redos may be in the offing so he/she can budget more time.

  2. By Cleo:

    I’d suggest that he says he has a medical condition, and leaves it at that. I’ve been dealing with a lot of really young reporters lately, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see them make that a major part of the story … sigh.

  3. By Doug Oliver:

    Excellent topic, Brad. This is why I listen to you. While your remarks are focused on the topic of how a noticeable illness may be perceived, the other issue worth noting here may be larger than the interview. As you say, an illness could be newsworthy but not simply due to the idle curiosity of the reader. If this is a public company, there may be disclosure issues involved and IR needs to be at least asked for input. Maybe I am being too cautious but SEC disclosure regulations are nebulous at best and call for disclosure of material info regarding the company and senior leaders. That is why an illness may be newsworthy. In this case, Parkinson’s has no impact on a leader’s ability to do the job and is not the best example, but the health of the CEO as it relates to his or her ability to do the job may be an issue. I’ve found many times that even the most senior leaders in a public company may not always think “disclosure.” If the CEO’s illness is new information, asking a simple question up front could prevent problems down the road. Great topic, Brad.

  4. By Daphne Gray-Grant:

    Excellent suggestion. For sure he should tell reporters he has Parkinson’s. I think he does need to say that specifically — and not just that he has “a medical condition” — because it explains the shaking in his hands.

  5. By Brad Phillips:


    Thank you for your kind comment. You raise an excellent point regarding the SEC’s disclosure regulations and the types of health information that executives of public companies are required to disclose. I’d love any attorneys to jump in here and offer their own insight regarding that question.

    It seems to me that Steve Jobs, for example, was very slow to disclose “material” information. That suggests to me that companies have a lot of leeway to keep health information private — but that case might have been an anomaly.

    Attorneys? Public company spokespersons? Please shed some light on this for me.


  6. By Brad Phillips:

    Mike —

    Good point that disclosing the disease in advance may encourage the journalists to budget more time for the interview.

  7. By Brad Phillips:

    Cleo —

    Sorry to hear about your experiences with young reporters. I wonder if your comment makes the case that you should discuss the issue with the reporters’ editors first, since they’re presumably more seasoned.

    Thanks for commenting!

  8. By Brad Phillips:


    I agree. I’d hope that most reporters have enough empathy to exclude that detail from their story.

    In my case, knowing that he had Parkinson’s didn’t make my questions any easier. I still challenged him and held him accountable. I don’t think he wanted pity, and I wasn’t inclined to give it to him. What I was willing to do was to exclude any mention of his body language from the story. In this case, I believe his words deserved the full spotlight. I’d sure hope that most reporters would pursue an actual story in the same manner.

    Thanks for commenting!

  9. By Doug Oliver:

    Here is a link on the subject I found from an IR guy on Google. He leans toward “slow to disclose” but acknowledges that it is an issue to consider. I know of an instance at a public company where the CEO had an serious accident and it was never disclosed. I agree with you – would love to hear from any disclosure experts out there to give an opinion.

  10. By Jeff Domansky:

    Great topic Brad and sage advice. I firmly believe the honesty will impress a reporter and the cameraman. Not to mention assist the interviewee in not misrepresenting the shaking hand. And yes I’d definitely go to an editor or news director if it was misrepresented.

  11. By Philip Connolly:

    I used to work with a young man whose speech was slowed by his condition. So no question of having to explain.

    One advantage – which he well knew – was that his opponents did not dare to interrupt his comments. They would have sounded callous. He was able to take time to complete his sentences and inevitably got the lion’s share of the interview time.

  12. By Paula:

    I completely agree, Brad. Disclosure is, in most cases, the best policy. It leaves no room for speculation and assumption.

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