Handle media relations is to learn how to play the game
The world is changing quickly -- and nobody knows that better than America's physicians. What was cutting-edge yesterday probably now has "the next big thing" in hot pursuit.
The news media has changed as well -- from a newspaper-oriented enterprise into a powerful industry made of not just newspapers, but magazines, network and cable television, radio, the Internet, and whatever looms next on the horizon. It is the single most powerful way for any person, product, or business to tell their story and to build broad-based name awareness. It carries an inherent credibility that far surpasses direct mail or print advertising -- immediately and cost-efficiently.
At the same time, there are many potential hazards to interacting with the media, which is why so many people approach it with trepidation. Physicians are no different. In any community or at any medical center there are physicians who covet media attention, while an equal number are just as happy to hand the microphone to their partner. Yet it's important to recognize that ignoring the media is akin to not voting: it negates any right to criticize the outcome.
The best way to handle media relations is to learn how to play the game -- starting with recognizing the most common mistakes physicians (and others) make and knowing how to turn media interactions to your advantage.
Be Prepared -- It's as simple as that. Too many physicians approach an interview as just another conversation (which it is not) or no big deal (which it is). Moreover, they assume that their general knowledge of healthcare and related issues will be enough to get them through. Major mistake.
Never sit down for an interview without first doing your homework. This means working with a public relations representative, if you have one, to find out all you can about the reporter, the publication (or broadcast station), the angle of the story, who else the reporter is speaking with, and more. It also means preparing specific talking points by asking yourself, "If I had the chance to say three things -- and three things only -- on this topic, what would they be?" The power of the media is too great to discount the value of preparation.
Know When to Stop Talking -- Equally as important as knowing what to say is knowing when to stop talking. Some reporters intentionally create "dead air," believing that if they pause between questions long enough, their subject will seek to fill uncomfortable silence by continuing to speak. It is then that you are susceptible to straying off point, saying something you didn't mean to, or taking the interview down a road you are neither prepared nor comfortable to travel down. The rule is very simple: When you're through making your point, stop talking.
Understand Your Roles -- Too many physicians view the media as their adversary. They are not, but they have a job to do that differs from yours. Clearly, your job is to take care of patients and, when the media calls, to tell your story in the best possible light. The reporter's obligation is to their media outlet, and to get answers to questions they believe the audience would ask if given the opportunity to do so.
Remember Your Rights -- You have the right to keep notes, statistics, and charts in front of you during the interview. You have the right to answer a laundry list of questions in whatever order you choose. You have the right to do the interview at a time and place that is comfortable for you -- or to decline an interview request altogether. You have the right to not answer any questions you wish not to answer for reasons of patient confidentiality, because they are proprietary in nature, or because you simply may not have all of the facts at your fingertips that would validate your response.
Cut the Jargon -- There is no more jargon-filled industry than healthcare. It is important to keep in mind that the reporters who cover healthcare are often general business reporters who yesterday covered city schools and tomorrow will be writing about local transportation. They have just a short time to become experts on medicine. Physicians need to recognize this and use conversational, everyday language rather than cluttering the interview with medical jargon. Years ago, physicians kept medicine a mystery simply by the language they used. Today, smart physicians are recognizing the value in "demystifying" healthcare to gain greater public trust and understanding.
Body Language Matters -- Too many people underestimate the power of body language while doing an interview. Don't make this mistake (it goes for your patient encounters, too). Studies reveal that our words account for a much smaller part of the message than our tone of voice, gestures, and facial expressions. Look the reporter in the eye when first meeting, when he or she is asking a question, and when you are answering. Smile and keep your energy level high. This may be easier to do for TV, but it is good advice when doing an interview for the print media as well. Some people find that standing during a telephone interview helps. Most importantly, be confident about what you are saying.
You're Always on the Record -- I am amazed by how many people forget that everything they say to a reporter is "on the record" and fair game for them to use. An interview isn't over just because a reporter closes his notebook or because the TV cameras go dark. Sometimes, the juiciest piece of information to that reporter is in the informal conversation that takes place when you are walking together out of your office. Even then, you are "on the record." Ultimately, you can't control how the film will be edited, which quotes will be used, or what the headline will read. But you can control what you say and what you don't. A good rule of thumb is to not say anything that you wouldn't be comfortable seeing on page one of your local newspaper.
Think Like a Reporter -- Reporters and editors are looking for news -- and that means finding what is unique, timely, or dramatic about what you have to say. Just because something is of interest to you doesn't necessarily mean it will be interesting to others. Ask yourself objectively, "Who else would care about this story?" Can you provide local angles, access to colleagues or clinical data, and new information that has significance to readers? Can you provide a patient who is willing to speak on the record or on camera? Putting yourself in the reporter's shoes also means that your office staff is responsive when the reporter calls and is respectful of their deadlines.
Disagree, But Don't Argue -- Benjamin Franklin once said, "Don't get into an argument with anyone who buys ink by the barrel." He was right. They write the story, and your argument may never come through to the reader. At the same time, don't assume that if a reporter states a fact that it must be right. If you disagree with what a reporter has said, constructively challenge the information and correct the inaccuracies using facts, your experiences, and evidence-based data. Good reporters will respect and appreciate this.
Think Long-Term -- Physicians who do not view media relations as an ongoing proposition are making a mistake. The purpose of the interview is not just to get one good story, but to develop a relationship in which that reporter will look to you as an honest and accessible resource. This is how you will get repeated positive coverage and name recognition among patients, other physicians, and the community.
Ross K. Goldberg is a 28-year veteran of healthcare public relations and marketing communications. He is currently president of Kevin/Ross Public Relations in Westlake Village, Calif. He can be reached at Ross@kevinross.net or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared in the May 2004 issue of Physicians Practice.