Leading Lady – A Pioneer for Dietitians in Communications
Aug 29, 2013
PROLOGUE: Kathleen Zelman is certainly one of the most well-known RDs in the field – if not the most well-known. Highly visible to both the public and her peers, she has earnestly and effectively embraced nutrition communications. I have only recently had the opportunity to sit down with Kathleen and get to know her and her story. The more I know, the more I like! So, I wanted to share some of her expert insight and guidance with you in this blog.
Melissa: How did you first become interested in a career in nutrition?
Kathleen: I was a dancer and wanted to pursue that career but my parents urged me to dance while getting a teaching degree to fall back on when my body gave out. I found nutrition because it helped me understand anatomy, physiology and biochemistry which allowed me to use my body to become a better dancer.
Melissa: I had no idea you were a dancer! I went to a performing arts high school for ballet when I was 14 and that’s when I really started thinking about nutrition myself. Tell me a little bit about your nutrition philosophy – what are you known for?
Kathleen: A very practical approach – I think if you do the right thing regarding diet and lifestyle 80% of the time, you are on the right track towards good health. You will find all kinds of foods in my household – nothing is forbidden (well, almost nothing).
Melissa: Hmm – Okay I won’t put you on the spot and ask what those forbidden foods are. Everyone needs a few secrets. But I am curious about how you came to work at WedMD? How did you land the job?
Kathleen: Surprisingly, they reached out to me. I thought they were seeking a nutrition expert to do an interview because I was still an ADA spokesperson at the time but alas they were looking for a media savvy dietitian to join their team. I signed on to do a wide variety of tasks including lots of writing. Even though I was not an expert communicator, they took a chance with me and I learned from my editors and began looking critically at aspects of well-written articles to develop my personal style.
Melissa: Wow, that just proves that if you are out there and doing good work then opportunities will find YOU. What is your primary form of nutrition communications at WebMD?
Kathleen: I have been at WebMD since 2003 and have done everything from write, edit, review diets, videos, community boards, assisting with sales, marketing, and product development like our tools. We also use to have a weight loss clinic that I served as the director and newsletter editor. I also do write, edit and create recipes for the WebMD Magazine.
Melissa: You’re in a unique position with WebMD where you get to learn about what people want regarding nutrition and how they want to get that info – tell us a little bit about what you’ve learned and how RDs have an opportunity to distinguish ourselves from the “noise.”
Kathleen: Slideshows are more popular than ever before probably because consumers like pictures and short text. We know that consumers are very hungry for healthy living information in their chaotic lives. More than 86% want to live healthier lives and they go to trusted websites like WebMD for practical information. Social media has impacted the way WebMD communicates. Apps, social sharing, and mobile technology are huge and changing how information is communicated. The new digital consumer wants info that fits on their screen. Consumers are using their smart phones and tablets more than the desktop. Think bite sized, snack size bits of information much like Tweets are best on smaller screens.
Melissa: How interesting it must be to get that insight and then turn around and use it in your communications endeavors. What other media/communications do you specialize in outside of WebMD and what do you enjoy most about it?
Kathleen: I love educating consumers and professionals and empowering people to improve their lives through a better understanding of health and wellness or enhancing careers through media training.
I work for UHC (United Healthcare) – I am the nutrition expert for Source4Women where I blog weekly, do monthly webinars, write articles, create videos for UHC TV and develop recipes targeted to women. I have also conducted presentations, worked on projects and other nutrition related business.
Additionally I serve on the Healthy Living Council for Jamba Juice providing input on product development and helping them further their commitment to health and wellness. Here’s one of my videos (click on the link or image below then scroll down to the bottom of the screen).
I conduct media training primarily for RDs. I have media trained over 1500 healthcare professionals.
Lastly, I have been very fortunate to travel the world giving presentations to professional groups on a variety of topics related to nutrition. I’m really excited about an upcoming presentation at the Communication Science Colloquium II sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences in DC.
Melissa: I was so excited to see you on TV when I was presenting at a UHC conference in Scottsdale recently! And I had the pleasure of attending your media training session at SCAN last Spring. You’re one of the RDs who inspired me to start my own media training biz. We need more RDs in the media and the best trainer for an RD is another RD who has the skills and experience to share!
The Communication Science Colloquium you’re presenting at looks amazing!! It’s all about the “science of science communication” and your workshop is with David B. Allison, Julie Downs and Brian Wansink!! How exciting.
Kathleen: I served in many capacities, but the highlights are that I was elected to the Academy’s Board of Directors and served as Director at Large for 3 years (2008-2011), and prior to that I served two terms in the House of Delegates. I also served 12 years as an ADA spokesperson and it was an incredible experience learning how to communicate more effectively and inspiring consumers to better health. I also made the best friends! Being a spokesperson enabled networking opportunities that changed my career and my life.
Melissa: That is fabulous. I’m enjoying the Academy spokesperson experience myself – especially the people I’m meeting (like you!) and the relationships I’m building. What comes naturally for you and what do you have to work hard at when it comes to nutrition communications?
Kathleen: Writing was difficult at first but with lots of practice has gotten easier over the years. Work in front of the camera is always challenging but when you do your homework and are well prepared, it can appear to be effortless.
Melissa: Well, you certainly are an excellent writer and on-camera expert – so that hard work has paid off! What skills or experiences do RDs need to cultivate if they want to do more with nutrition communications like you?
Kathleen: Master your communication skills – this is the single most important skill that can advance your career. Write for a local paper, do a radio show, take a course or media training to help improve your ability to communicate in all forms. Get engaged in social media if you are not yet involved. Also, be an avid reader – this will help your writing and enable you to keep up with nutrition because it is a science and requires that you keep up in the field.
Melissa: I couldn’t agree more! What are your top 3 tips for RDs in nutrition communications?
Kathleen: First, have fun and enjoy the process – learning and growing personally and professionally are so rewarding. Second, keep your information ‘bite sized’ – it needs to be intuitive, quick and simple if you want to reach your audience. Finally, show your personality – people follow you because they like you. Have a consistent voice, style and dependability to maintain those followers.
Melissa: Excellent advice. Please share one story or experience that either taught you a lot or you think would help other RDs.
Kathleen: Be prepared with your business cards and 3-minute elevator speech that might enable you to turn a casual meeting into a business deal. I met the weather gal from the local TV station at a park with my kids and it turned into a regular gig on the morning show because I had a business card and my elevator speech.
Melissa: I love this example because it shows how rewarding it can be when you take a risk! I understand you received a special memento when you did some consulting with a food company.
Kathleen: Yes, I did some video and project work for General Mills and they surprised me with my own Wheaties Box with a picture of me playing tennis. Priceless!!
Melissa: That is truly cool. You’re also one of the few dietitians who has their very own Wikipedia page! And, by the way, you have such a lovely family!
Kathleen: My family is the wind beneath my wings. They mean the world to me and it’s their love and support that has enabled me to pursue my passions. I’m so proud of each of them for all that they have accomplished.
EPILOGUE: Kathleen is truly an inspiration. We have learned so much from her and will continue to learn as she leads the way for many more RDs – not to merely follow in her footsteps, but to create their own paths forward into the exciting world of nutrition communications. Be sure to check out Kathleen’s WebMD articles and follow her on twitter @KZelman. Please post a comment below and let us know what you think or if you have any questions for Kathleen!
Like what you read here? Hear what other nutrition experts have to say about careers, communication and chasing their dreams. Visit the Directory of Dietitian Interviews and be inspired!
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I’m the Guilt-Free RD® – “Because food shouldn’t make you feel bad!™”. So, on my Food for Thought blog I’m exploring the secret ingredients needed to enjoy your food with health in mind. I’m also a “Dietitian Enthusiast” so I’m showcasing interviews with dietitians. My “How To” Series shares practical advice to help boost communication skills and gain more visibility, influence and success.
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