The phone rings, you pick up and a journalist is asking you to do a media interview. What should you do next?
Find out more before you agree
When a journalists calls it is important to get some basic information about what they want and why they are calling you. A few questions you may want to ask are included below. If you know you are going to receive media requests, it is worth having these questions saved on your desktop or on your phone for easy access:
- Which media outlet is the journalist calling from? Which programme?
- What is the journalist’s full name, email address and telephone number?
- Why do they want to interview an expert?
- What is the story or news ‘peg’ for the piece?
- What areas do you they want you to cover?
- Do they need to someone now, or can you call back in ten minutes (while you prepare)? What is their deadline?
- Or (if it is a broadcast interview) do you they want a live interview or a pre-recorded interview? When and where?
- Who else has the journalist spoken to for this story?
- Will I be on with another guest (for a broadcast interview), who are they?
- Do they have any context or information they can send you by email?
If the interview is not for you…
Firstly, check you aren’t being hasty for turning the opportunity down, reconsider if the following are true:
- I don’t have time today – scientific communication is important, can you find the time? It is probably not often you get this opportunity.
- I probably can talk about the area, but there will be someone more qualified – the journalist has chosen you for a reason, as a scientist you have a huge amount of knowledge. Remember if you turn down the interview, there is a chance that the journalist will go to someone less qualified.
- I am nervous about media interviews – you would have to be superhuman not to be nervous about doing a media interview. With a bit of preparation most people can do a media interview despite their nerves. Remember it is better for journalists to have a bigger pool of experts to interview than constantly use the ‘go to’ people. Get support from your press office, write down your key messages and you may surprise yourself. One you have an interview or two under your belt you are likely to find future media work less daunting.
- I worry about what my colleagues will think – this is a common fear that puts many people off. Remember that communicating to the public is really important – people outside science are generally supportive of medical research and media work helps retain that support. When you are doing a media interview you are not talking to your peers, you communicate with them in other ways, focus instead on communicating in a way that will help lay people understand. Ask your press office for support and get support from your manager or senior peers to do media work.
If you are truly not qualified for the request, or cannot do the interview, suggest other experts the journalist could talk to. Alternatively consider referring back to your press office so they can help them, but not before you have thought about doing it yourself.
Preparing for the interview
There are many things you can do to prepare, even in very limited time.
Call your press office – let them know you are doing the interview and they may be able to help you prepare. They can also help with logistics if a film crew is coming to you, or you need transport to a studio.
Use conversations with producers or researchers ahead of the interview to share your views – You will usually get a phone call ahead of a broadcast interview to discuss your views on the area that the journalist wants to cover. Feel free to give a broad view on the topic and raise issues you think are important to their audience – it is fine to say ‘actually, what I think is most important..’ or ‘the really interesting thing for patients is..’. You might find sharing your views reframes the interview or is fed into the questions that are asked. Also highlight any areas you don’t know about, ‘I am not a doctor, so I wouldn’t be able to answer questions about what patients should do’ or ‘That area isn’t my expertise but what I do know is…’.
Prepare your key messages – Spend time refining your top three messages and have one really important top line message you really want to get across message, this is the message you will keep coming back to. Keep your messages as simple and accessible as possible. Remember that many people will be slightly distracted when they hear you – they might be eating breakfast or reading on the busy morning commute so repetition is good. It is likely they will take away only take away one simple point, so ask yourself what one thing do you want them to know? How can you make that point clearly and succinctly? You can think of your message like a sandwich: the bread is the key message, the fillings are the additional details - you want to begin and end your point with the key message. Spend much more time doing this than anticipating difficult questions that you might not even get asked.
Who are the audience? Ask yourself who will read or hear the interview. Do they know anything about your field? What will they want to know? What language will they respond to? Think of the person in your family that is equivalent to the likely audience, your mum, child, auntie, and consider yourself talking to them about the topic. Always avoid jargon, all acronyms apart from the NHS and DNA should be avoided. Give examples that people can relate to – e.g. if you are talking about size, always use a real life comparison (‘that’s the equivalent to two football pitches/the length of a match stick). Or use similies to paint a picture (‘it is a bit like an explosion’ ‘if you had this disease it would feel like you hadn’t eaten for days’).
Answer questions, but bridge to the topics that you think are important – It is important to answer questions when you can in interviews, but if the answer doesn’t relate to your key message find a way to bring this in. Broadcast interviews in particular can be extremely short so make sure you get your key message into your first answer. You can do this by using bridging phrases such as ‘most importantly…’, ‘the thing people will want to know is…’, ‘what I can tell you is…’, ‘Interestingly…’
Look at top tips guides, and have them to hand for future – There are some fantastic guides to help you do media work out there, they include the Wellcome Trust’s guide to working with the media and the Science Media Centre’s top tips guide. Or look for good, short articles that will put you in the right mindset such as this one from Elsevier.
Take a deep breath and congratulate yourself for holding your nerve and doing a media interview! Remember you have tried your best and that communication is really important. It is easy to be over critical of your own interviews but do give yourself a break and think of the things that went well before you think of the things you would do better in future.
After experiencing her first day of a media splash, Professor Susan Wray FMedSci said: "The reaction of people who knew and didn’t know me was incredibly positive and therefore very gratifying! Friends, colleagues and neighbours got in touch to tell me great things about my interviews. The Vice Chancellor at the university where I work was one of the first to email and congratulate me. I only had one mildly hurtful email – but that’s what the delete button is for.”
Get feedback – call your press office, a supportive colleague, friend or relative. Feel free to ask the journalist for feedback, especially to find out if you communicated in a way that would work for their audience.
Consider ignoring unsolicited feedback – it is fairly common in science and health to get criticism post media interview. Everyone has an opinion and wants to get it out there. When you get any critical feedback, ask yourself is it fair? Is there anything constructive you can take from the feedback to use in future? If not, consider ignoring and don’t let it put you off future opportunities!
Consider upskilling – if you felt a bit rusty during the interview consider how to build your skills for future. The Science Media Centre run regular and popular ‘Introduction to the News Media’ courses, contact them for more information. Or talk to your press office or research funder about getting more intensive training that would give you more skills to tackle broadcast interviews.
Feel a warm glow and get ready for your next interview!
The Academy of Medical Sciences has a press office who can give support to Academy Fellows or grant awardees that are considering doing media work.
For more information about our work supporting medical scientists to do media work please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
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