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Reporters Can Be Digging for Dirt, Not Digging for Gold: A Healthcare PR Caution

By Stewart Gandolf, Chief Executive Officer

Person digging warning street signDoctors are often called upon by members of the news media to speak or be quoted as an authoritative source. Often, that's good, but there could be a downside.

Physicians, medical practice administrators and hospital marketing and PR executives need to consider that sometimes reporters are not digging for gold, they are digging for dirt. Choose your words carefully, anything you say in public or to news reporter just might be held against you.

In fairness to members of the Fourth Estate, most reporters (and most healthcare relations with the media) are highly professional, fair and straightforward. But—as seasoned PR people know from experience—all dealings with members of the news media are too important to be taken casually.

Every working reporter is aware of how the investigative news coverage of the Watergate scandal made Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein into award-winning, journalism superstars. Of course most reporters do not begin their workday in pursuit of a hot expose, but here are a few reminders that can make for positive healthcare public relations. (And surprise-free interaction.)

Reporters are always looking for an "edge." It is their job to present a story in a way that is interesting to their readers or viewers. Even with the most routine information or mundane situation, the reporter will be looking for unique way to makes their product different or unusual. They may not know their "edge" until they gather the basic facts of Who, What, When, Where, Why and How. Be careful not to inspire an unflattering approach.

Ask what questions will be asked. Take the time to understand the topic of a proposed interview, and be clear about what you can say with confidence and authority. Of course, be prepared, be accurate and do not speculate. Don't mislead a reporter or say anything that you would not want the public to read or hear as a quote.

Absolutely nothing is "off the record." Even candid, casual, joking or the most innocent of remarks can find their way into publication or broadcast. Once spoken, you can't erase them, and there is no assurance that your comments will be used or not used by the reporter in a positive or negative way.

Ask about technical fact checking and detail accuracy. Members of the news media almost never let anyone-outside of their own editors or managers and associates-review their work in advance of publication. (Just asking will rub them the wrong way.) When the content includes scientific or medical material, you can ask about their policy for checking technical details. It may be helpful to provide these in a written fact sheet or reference background.

It's OK to say you don't know. In an interview situation, there can be a temptation to always say something. But if a question catches you off guard, or if an answer requires speculation, it's best to say you don't have an answer. Alternatively, you might offer to look into the topic and get back to them. It is not a good idea to say, "No comment."

It's OK to decline an interview. News media interview requests can have a tantalizing appeal, especially when it is a large or important publication. It is just as important, however, to closely weigh the opportunity against any risk. If, for example, the topic is controversial, it may be prudent to politely decline being a resource.

And finally, remember that reporters do not work for you. Most reporters are inclined to work WITH you, but their allegiance (and paycheck) is with the media. An important skill in PR is to connect a reporter to ordinary facts in a way that is interesting and positive. But there is no assurance that they will follow your direction.

The Watergate political cover-up made for sensational international news over 30 years ago, but today, it still holds a valuable lesson for anyone in healthcare public relations and their interactions with reporters.

Most often, it is an excellent healthcare public relations opportunity and non-confrontational. Their agenda is not your agenda. What's more, they may be developing a larger story idea that they may or may not share with you. Additional articles about healthcare public relations and publicity for a medical practice are here on our blog, and on the Healthcare Success website.

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