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Too good to be true?

October 22nd, 2005

Dr Petra

Some psychologists may have been offered a new job this week. A UK glossy women’s magazine has a vacancy for a ‘psychologist/relationship expert’.

The magazine already has a panel of experts – a nutritionist, personal trainer, alternative therapist, GP, and gynaecological expert. Their current psychologist is leaving and they need to replace her.

So they sent out a request for a “young, enthusiastic qualified psychologist, willing to tackle a broad range of topics, from romantic relationships to friendship problems”.

They also outlined what the role entailed: “taking part in the panel involves answering your choice of just two short questions a month…. It’s unpaid, but is a great way to boost your public profile, and of course a fantastic opportunity to talk about any books or products you’re currently working on. There may also be chance to write paid features for the magazine in the future”

Those who wanted a chance at this opportunity were asked to sign up for a minimum of six issues, and to send in a biog and photograph.

As an agony aunt and someone who contributes regularly to magazines I’ve nothing against problem pages or expert panels, in fact I think they can be a source of help for people who need advice.

But as you’ve probably guessed, I have a problem with the approach of this magazine.

Here’s why:

Expertise should be rewarded

The ‘glossy women’s magazine’ that sent out this request isn’t short of a bob or two and most certainly can afford to reward their experts and treat them respectfully. The magazine wants a ‘young and enthusiastic’ psychologist, but they also want one who’s qualified. If you’re bringing a skilled worker onto your staff you should be willing to pay them.

Otherwise it would be a bit like me saying to one of the writers on this glossy ‘why not come over to my department one afternoon a month for the next six months and give a lecture to my students. I won’t pay you but you’ll be able to talk about anything you’re working on currently’. I’m sure I wouldn’t get any takers.

Whilst experts aren’t paid for giving quotes to magazines or papers, answering reader problems requires more work. Some people don’t always feel comfortable accepting payment, but in such cases you can always donate it to a good cause. But just because you’re helping out by contributing to an advice column doesn’t mean you’re a charity.

Newbies need incentives

It’s unlikely an experienced psychologist would go for this post unless they are in desperate need of a bit of self-promotion. An experienced psychologist would be busy with clients (if they’re a therapist) and teaching/research (if they’re an academic). If they’re also doing media work it’s likely they’ll have time to do something that doesn’t pay in some way. Remember, for the time taken to write for a magazine – even if it’s only half an hour or so, that time will have to either be covered by someone or be made up by the expert in their own time. We don’t get time out to do media work.

Whilst a junior psychologist who’s not got much media experience but might like some would probably welcome this opportunity, it’s going to be more difficult for them because they’re inexperienced. Firstly they’ll have to learn to write for a magazine, which won’t be anything like they’re used to as either a therapist or lecturer. Secondly they’ll also have to identify resources and places of help for readers, which takes time to familiarise yourself with. And finally they’ll have to fit this in within conflicting deadlines.

An experienced expert can probably answer two very simple reader problems in half an hour or perhaps slightly more – it’ll take longer to answer more complex problems. A person new to the job can expect this task will take them a couple of hours until they get used to it.

And since people with problems deserve the best evidence in any reply to them it should take an expert time to consider and respond to their problem, so again this isn’t a quick throw-something-together approach. Any magazine that encourages its experts to behave in this way is doing its readers a great disservice.

Magazines take advantage

Many agony aunts I’ve met have told me wanting to help people motivates them. I think many experts who work with the media want to help increase knowledge, improve health or perhaps help people resolve their problems. When you’re someone who wants to help you’ll often be happy to work for nothing. You’ll reason that you’ve a message to get through to the public and here’s a forum for it, who cares if you aren’t paid? The trouble is that magazines treat the staff they don’t pay like the help – or often even worse. They figure they’re doing you a favour and can often take advantage or treat you shoddily. You may be motivated to work for nothing or very little because you want to help others, but magazines are nowhere near so philanthropically minded. If they can get you for free they’ll do it – they won’t share your ideals – they just see you as one less thing to pay for and a great way to increase copy.

Plugs may not be what are needed

Having this approach to work can cause other problems. Someone who is a psychologist working in academia, research, or therapy may well not have a book to plug or products to promote. If you’re busy working in therapy you may not have time to write a book. If you’re working within academia then you’ll be encouraged to write academic papers based on research, not books – particularly not relationship or other manuals that would fit well within an advice page.

The trouble with our media is it relies upon people with products to promote, rather than experts who may have as many if not more skills but don’t have something to flog. It means that people who may well have products but have less experience or expertise get to share ideas with the public that at best are outdated, at worst are dangerous.

The reality for many employed in academic settings is working with the media really isn’t valued. It won’t help with your career advancement to be seen as working on a magazine, particularly not for free. If you’ve time to do that, your colleagues will reason, you’re clearly not working hard enough at your research or teaching.

Answering reader problems may enhance a ‘public profile’ in terms of other media people hearing about you, and the magazine readers knowing who you are (although they may forget you as soon as they turn the page). But really as an expert your information should be more important and memorable than your name or profile. It’s a typical media misunderstanding that writing for a magazine is such an opportunity that it’ll help advance your career and is such a treat you don’t even have to be paid for it!

Of course if you’re in private practice and want to advertise your services this could be a good way to get some free advertising, but again perhaps readers may want to hear from a psychologist practitioner who isn’t just using an advice column as a means just to get clients.

By following this magazine’s approach there’s no value to be gained from applying for the job unless you’ve got a product to place or your services to promote, and that may not make you the best candidate.

Conflict of interest

Whilst a psychologist based within a therapy or academic setting might not have so much to promote in a traditional sense, they also don’t have to publicise themselves or their products to survive because they’re already paid through their main job.

There’s nothing wrong with having a book, product or service to promote, but if that’s the only reason you’re giving advice, or all you have to offer, then perhaps you’re not the best expert for the job.

It may not be as fair as it seems

The advert for the position also stated that experts could pick the problems they wanted to answer. In my experience of working as an agony aunt for a number of UK glossy magazines this is rarely the case. Usually letters are picked out for you, and sometimes if they’re from a person who may seem ‘controversial’ by the editor (usually lesbian or gay readers) the magazine may well alter the letter and your reply to fit their agenda (they often won’t tell you they’re doing this either).

You may even find that the magazine either edits your letter to present a viewpoint that contradicts your own or conflicts with current evidence, or that your replies to reader problems don’t always fit easily alongside many of the other features or advertisements within the magazine.

Seeing things more clearly

A few years ago if I’d have seen this advert I’d have jumped at it. A young psychologist who was keen to get into media I’d have wanted any way in. Even if it was unpaid. Which is exactly how magazines exploit the highly qualified experts they have on their staff. If this were for a charity, or a student magazine or some other project where none of the staff were paid, or it was helping people in desperate need, then I’m sure everyone would agree non-payment of experts would be an option. But from a multi-million pound publishing house it’s just downright insulting.

What’s the solution?

Payment could lead to better applicants and at least respect someone’s expertise. An equally importantly magazines should work to attract and retain genuine experts who want to share information, rather than someone who wants to sell their products or services. The result would be the magazine and its readers would hear from someone who knows their stuff, and doesn’t have a conflict of interest.

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