By Stewart Gandolf
Chief Executive Officer
The 20 most important tips for working with news media; friendly or otherwise.
A one-on-one interview or an elaborate news conference requires preparation and confidence when working with the news media. Although there can be no assurances about the media will do, here are the 20 most important tips for before, during and after a media encounters...
The good news and the bad news about communicating your healthcare organization’s message is that the news media is the conduit for spreading the word. Often, the news side is a helpful and effective channel, but can also be totally disinterested or outright unfriendly to what you want to say.
There are also times when the media want something from you—they’re looking for an authoritative voice from the hospital, a doctor as an expert…or maybe they’re on the trail of an investigative report. You can imagine various scenarios… you want news media coverage at your news conference; they want an in-depth or feature article for their audience; it’s a big city or it’s a local weekly newspaper.
Regardless of who-wants-what-from-whom-when-and-why, working effectively with the news media is an important skill set. Here’s our list of the top tips for dealing with the news media. Be flexible… how each of these concepts applies depends on the nature of your practice, situation, organization and/or other circumstances.
Be prepared—before, during and after.
There’s much that can be done in advance, particularly for a news conference or event where the media will attend. For others occasions, it’s prudent to anticipate and to decide in advance how, for example, a hospital would deal with the media in the course of a natural disaster or respond to a request for an expert interview.
Known or unknown, anticipated or unexpected, positive or negative-preparation and practice are your strongest resources for any media encounter.
- Have a plan. Even if you don’t encounter the media frequently, it’s a good idea to decide who speaks for your organization, company, hospital or practice. Who speaks on what issues?
- Need resources? Perhaps you have (or are) a PR-experienced person on staff. If you’re planning a significant media event, consider outside help from a public relations agency; even if it is for a short term or special occasion.
- Know YOUR story. Plan one or two positive, key points to make in an interview or news conference. Be brief, specific and shape these points in easy to understand language. Stay focused on the message you want to communicate and be sure to make your point-more than once, if possible. (Think “sound bite.”)
- Practice building bridges. “Bridge Building” is the artful process of connecting a question to one of your key points. You’ve probably seen or heard politicians do this-and done well, they make it a work of art with wits and words. They have a lot of practice in making the connection to they want to get across-regardless, sometimes, of what was asked. But be careful-done poorly, it can sound deceptive.
- Watch the pros. You can see good and bad examples of spokespeople and media interaction on C-SPAN or other outlets that cover full news conferences or detailed interviews. Watch a few and you’ll spot techniques being used by both the reporter and the respondent. Look for “bridge building,” note how people dress for TV, and observe body language, gestures and how they hold their hands.
- Anticipate tough questions. Even “friendly” media encounters can include “difficult” questions. Some reporters are deliberately provocative or probe for a “man-bites-dog” angle. Being prepared is a better option than a “no comment” answer. Avoid repeating the negative angle and shape a positive response.
- Know the media, reporter and audience. A little research will help to know the interests of the reader, listener or viewer. Distinguish between a front page, general assignment reporter, the medical editor, or the guy on the sports beat. (In smaller publications they may wear several hats.) Further, you may find that some reporters have reputations for style, balance, etc.
- Train, practice and role-play. If you are called upon to be a spokesperson daily or rarely, being prepared will help communicate the best possible message.
- Begin at the end. Present your key idea or conclusion right up front. News stories are structured this way, and reporters look for their lead idea at the top. Supporting details can follow, but present your big idea first.
- Be brief. Broadcast news uses sound bites, and print media uses quotes. Present any one idea clearly and quickly. Prepare and practice answers that are short, sharp and one at a time. Too much information can disguise or confuse your message.
- Make your point. Use bridge building and be sure to get your message across-more than once.
- If you don’t know, say so. If you are asked a question and don’t know the answer (or don’t have all the facts), you may need to defer answering the question with a promise to get the information and get back to the reporter. Don’t guess, don’t be evasive, and don’t try to ad-lib or fake an answer.
- Be authoritative but understandable. Some experts are so knowledgeable that it’s difficult for them to simplify the answer for the media or audience. Know your stuff, but find and practice the right words to communicate clearly without sounding long-winded or overly technical/clinical (as appropriate to the audience).
- Be nice; sincerely nice. Smile and be friendly, enthusiastic and realistic-and you’ll communicate believability, confidence and expertise. (Conversely, don’t lose your temper or show irritation.)
- Take your time. A pause or a moment to think about a question is better than being rushed into saying the wrong thing. Take a deep breath or ask for a question to be restated, if necessary, to shape an appropriate answer. Speak at a moderate, natural pace; not too quickly and not too slowly.
- Red Flag Questions & Answers. Stick to the facts and information you know. Don’t speculate, answer hypothetical or unrelated questions, or try to speak “off the cuff.” These are occasions for bridge-building answers. It’s best to believe that nothing is ever off the record, and never say anything you would not want to see published.
- Follow-up and follow-through. If you promised to provide an answer, additional details, or pictures/visuals, do so promptly, and before the publication deadline.
- Ask. Determine how and when interview or news conference information will be used, if at all. But don’t pressure a reporter; they may or may not use material according to their needs or schedule, not yours. They are unlikely to show you anything in advance or ask your approval, but be available if they want to check facts, spelling or request clarification.
- Document the media record. Good or bad, short or long, you’ll want a copy of what appears in the media. Arrange to get your own copies from the newsstand or online. Don’t expect the reporter to provide copies or reprints, or to let you know when something has been published or broadcast.
- Begin again from the top. Each media encounter holds lessons for the next opportunity. Check your plan, prepare again and practice with the lessons learned.
The brutal bottom-line with any media encounter is there simply are no guarantees. A casual or unintentional contact with a news reporter can be exceptionally positive. Or a carefully planned and seemingly friendly media conference can turn explosively negative. Fortunately, the outcome of most media encounters is rarely extreme.
If you have a reasonable story to communicate, reporters and media outlets tend to be balanced and accurate. And, although there are no assurances, the best course toward a positive media encounter is to prepare in advance. Know your message, identify your spokesperson, and practice.
If you’d like to know more about putting this high-value communications tool to work in your practice or healthcare marketing plan, give us a call today at (800) 656-0907.