Meeting the press: Tricks of the trade for giving interviews

Participating in media interviews can result in positive PR for your ED

Emergency department (ED) managers, nurses, and physicians should actively participate in media interviews, urges Robert Suter, DO, MHA, FACEP, regional medical director for Questcare Emergency Services in Dallas, TX. "In the age of mass media, the image of your ED and even your entire hospital can hinge on an eight-second sound bite," he says.

In most people’s eyes, news reporters are viewed as impartial observers, Suter notes. "If they are talking to you, you gain enormous credibility as an expert. This is credibility that you cannot buy," he says.

Giving interviews is a key advantage in any plan to improve the reputation and marketability of your ED, Suter explains. "Further, administrators know this—they know that you are getting valuable exposure for the hospital, and credibility that only you as a clinician can obtain for them," he says. "They appreciate that, and will remember it when your contract or other issues are discussed."

ED staff are prime candidates for major media stories, stresses Nan Tolbert, director of training at Susan Peterson Productions, Inc., based in Washington, DC. "When we train ED physicians, we’re always aware that they’re the front-line people on cases that could put them on the national news overnight," she says. "For example, when kids overdose on heroin in middle class neighborhoods, or the school shootings occurred in Jonesboro, AK, the first people the media wanted to talk to were the ED physicians who treated those people."

ED staff are involved in cases that reflect trends in society, Tolbert notes. "From everything from health care access to lifestyles, they have the potential to be quoted in media interviews," says Tolbert. "There are so many issues that ED physicians may face, such as access to emergency care, which are timely and on many people’s minds."

Overcome defensive attitudes about the news media, says Peggy O’Leary, senior medical reporter for WRDW-TV in North Augusta, SC. "There is a general notion that reporters are out to get someone. That might be true for some, but in medical reporting there is genuinely an attitude to help and educate the viewers," she explains.

Your community is eager to hear from you, says O’Leary. "Medical stories come second on a list of what viewers want, with weather as number one," she says. "So don’t hide when your local TV station calls. It is a great chance for you to reach an interested audience."

Here are some tricks of the trade to consider when giving interviews:

Keep it simple. "Be as upbeat as possible, and speak in short sentences," says Suter. "If a great key concept is buried in a 30-minute rambling sentence, they are not going to be able to use it. You are just making it very hard for the reporter to get your message across."

If you lose an audience with technical terms, the editor may be able to cut some material to salvage the interview, notes Suter. "They will edit you so you don’t appear to be rambling. But they may have to use something that wasn’t important to you, just because it was shorter," he says. "It’s the editor’s job to cut, but if you make their job difficult, it’s the last interview you’ll be asked to do. Your name will come up at the station and they’ll say that’s the guy who used all that fancy medical terminology."

Be personable. "If you’re on TV, look into the camera and speak naturally," says Suter. "If you’re talking about a tragedy, complement other providers involved in care. If you’re doing a routine story, do not appear overly serious."

Do whatever is necessary to feel comfortable, stresses Suter. "Try to lighten up and relax in this tense situation. Tell the reporter a joke or make small talk as he or she is getting ready to shoot, or imagine how neat your kids are going to think it is to see you on TV, and concentrate on that," he says. "If you can convince yourself that doing this is fun, you are going to be fine."

To appear down to earth, include personal experiences. "When you prepare two or three key talking points in advance, have one or two strong examples from your own real-life experience to back up those key messages," suggests Tolbert.

During radio interviews, act as though you’re on camera. "With radio, your voice becomes particularly important. If you behave as if you’re on camera, it helps your voice stay animated and energetic," says Tolbert. "Radio studios are filled with distractions, such as the interviewer handling the phone lines. To stay focused, make eye contact and pretend you’re having a conversation with the interviewer. Or give yourself a point of focus, and talk to the radio microphone like you’re talking to one person listening to you."

Use descriptive language. "Use good examples to help a radio audience visualize what you are talking about," Tolbert says. "That keeps listeners engaged and makes you memorable. Talk like you are having a one-on-one conversation. That’s the way a person at home should feel when they see you on camera."

Imagine you are talking to a family at home. "You talk to families all the time, so think of how you’d explain something to them—not [an explanation] filled with jargon that confuses them, but something simple they can hold on to," Tolbert says. "ED physicians and nurses already have these skills, because they do this every day."

Be reachable. "Answer requests for interviews immediately, and give reporters your card with your pager number for future stories," says Suter. "Don’t leave a reporter in a lurch before a deadline. If a reporter knows that you will drop everything to help him or her meet a deadline of less than an hour with no notice, they will come back to ask for other stories in the future."

Be prepared. "Try to review the latest medical information on the topic before the interview. Keep references in the ED or your office," says Suter. "Do not speculate on an answer or state anything that you do not know. We all want to be responsible and don’t want to spread misinformation. So if you don’t know the absolute latest information, then you have a responsibility to look it up."

However, the amount of preparation you need depends on your personality type, says Suter. "To a certain extent, you can never be too prepared. But overpreparation causes some people to tense up," he notes. "If you have more stress from the preparation [than the interview itself], you need to stop. But if you are somebody who gets more relaxed from preparation, you should do that."

Don’t worry about making inconsequential errors. "Remember that even if you make some sort of small mistake, you are not taking your oral boards. Ninety-nine point nine percent of the people you are talking to know less about the subject than you do," says Suter. "No housewife is going to be calling the TV station to call you a fraud. You are educating the community, not presenting your thesis for the Nobel Peace Prize."

Keep in mind that your level of expertise is likely to be sufficient for the purpose of educating the audience, says Suter. "I was once asked to give an interview on lead poisoning. I am not a toxicologist, but I briefly reviewed the literature and gave accurate information on the level they were seeking," he recalls. "The network loved the interview and it was shown many times, because they felt it was a valuable community education piece for people who lived in the inner city."

Don’t get defensive. "Don’t scowl or say no comment,’ if confronted with a situation that may make your ED look bad," says Suter. "If the topic is a specific situation where the community is challenging your judgment, you will probably have an idea the reporter may be critical. So, hopefully, you won’t get blindsided. That stresses the importance of staff letting the [public relations] director know immediately if there are any issues which may come up."

To avoid being caught unaware, formulate generic statements in advance, Suter suggests. "A better approach would be to take more of a high road. Explain that, because of patient confidentiality issues, we can’t discuss that at this time. Or say our ED is always committed to providing the highest possible care to patients.’ If all else fails, make a general statement about hospital philosophy until everyone can regroup and address a situation."

Counter negativity with simple, positive statements. "Our tendency is to want to defend ourselves, but if you do, you buy into their negative message," says Tolbert. "Never allow reporters to put loaded words into your mouth, such as accusations or insinuations. You can say, that’s not my area of expertise, but I’ll be happy to put you in contact with so-and-so, who can give you the information you need."

Don’t criticize others. Don’t be negative or critical of other providers, says Suter. "This can create a situation that ruins relationships for years," he stresses. "You may be talking about a case where a patient was seen at a small hospital and taken to your big hospital. Maybe the care really was substandard at the other place, but don’t say the patient came here on death’s door thanks to the care they received elsewhere.’ Don’t promote your hospital on somebody else’s back. It just makes you look bad."

Involve your hospital’s public relations department when necessary. "When it comes to dealing with the media, nobody likes the lone ranger," says Suter. "When it reflects on the hospital’s image, the [public relations] PR department will want to be aware of it. They want the same things you want, so work in partnership with them."

Avoid legal risks. "Basically, stay away from anything that would be a negative comment about clinical care. That includes getting into any details if there is a negative outcome, or discussing an approach to care that might be controversial," Suter warns.

Be discreet. "Don’t violate patient confidentiality or give information which might hinder a police investigation (if a patient was a crime victim) or endanger anyone," Suter warns. "If you identify the type of weapon used in an assault, it may be something only the criminal knows. If you put it out on TV, that makes it harder for it to be used as evidence in court."

Don’t be overzealous. "Don’t allow filming to significantly affect patient care," says Suter. "Most EDs were not designed to be TV sets, and they are almost invariably built too small. Given the fact that there isn’t a lot of breathing room, if you start putting cameras and cables all over the place, it can really become a major problem."

Be aware of how filming is impacting staff, Suter recommends. "You know that filming is affecting patient care when you start getting glared at by people on duty. At that point, you have to be prepared to call it quits," he says. "Normally, you will get more problems from nurses or staff physicians than you will from anybody else. Patients generally don’t complain because it’s sort of an event to see TV crews."

An alternate arrangement may be necessary. "A TV crew will want action in the background and that’s fine if it works, but you should have a backup plan," says Suter. "Maybe you have an overflow area only used during busiest times where you can film. Get the nurse manager and secretaries to create some action behind the scene and let the people taking care of patients do it in peace."

Encourage staff to participate. "Most staff like being interviewed, but a large minority do not want to be, no matter what," says Suter. "Unless someone is in a job where this skill is critical, I suggest that you let people determine their own comfort level and support them."

Still, training should be offered to staff members. "For those who are interested but afraid, there are a number of media training companies, workshops, and guides that can be used," says Suter. "As long as the story is positive and the opportunity to look good’ is there, most people like seeing themselves on TV or their names in print. This is really all the incentive you need."

Help develop stories. "Reporters get writer’s block at times. If you make it a point to toss ideas their way, this develops more opportunities," says Suter. "Do this even if you are not the person that they should interview. Maybe you read an article in a journal about a subject that is relevant in your community, or maybe you went to a seminar and heard about new cardiovascular drugs in development that sounded interesting."

Develop relationships with reporters. "Invite reporters to educational events, and occasionally to social events if you see an appropriate tie-in," says Suter. "Try to get to know the reporter, what interests them, and, especially, any common interests."

Avoid technical terms. Use laymen’s terms. "Remember to use simple English and not a whole lot of jargon," says Robert Hockberger, MD, FACEP, chair of the department of emergency medicine at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance, CA.

Most news copy is written at the eighth-grade level, says O’Leary. "This makes stories short and simple so everyone can understand," she explains. "This may be the hardest part for highly educated medical personnel to achieve. But try to relate to telling a child about the procedure on which you are being interviewed."

If the topic is a fairly complex procedure that you are using in your ED, find a way to simplify it for the audience, says O’Leary. "Break it down and keep it simple," she recommends. "You can probably tell when you have lost the reporter. That means you have lost the audience as well."

Learn the art of soundbites. "Try to give concise answers in complete sentences," says O’Leary. "This sounds simple but rarely happens. You may think of an example in the middle of your explanation so you start with that, never finishing your explanation. So give complete thoughts and then move on to examples or other thoughts."

The idea is to quickly convey information to get your point across, says O’Leary. "Of course, we are not looking for yes/no’ answers. But we are looking for good, to-the-point soundbites of about 7-16 seconds for each question asked," she says. "Don’t panic, we will ask more than one question."

Be realistic about how much information you can convey, Suter advises. "Even in an hour-long segment, you will probably only get maximum of three points across to people," he says. "In a short interview, you will probably only get one point across. So you have to focus on that single point, and accept that you won’t be able to discuss the issue in depth."

Find out who you’re dealing with. "When a reporter calls you, always be sure to find out who they are, what publication they represent, why they have called you about the issue, what is the issue they want to talk about, and do they have some preconceived notion or slant," says Hockberger.

Get as much information as you can, Tolbert recommends. "Do this by interviewing the reporter before they interview you," she says. "Ask what information are they looking for, when is their deadline, [who is] the audience, where the interview will take place, will it be live or taped for editing later, [and] is it part of a larger story?"

Buy yourself time. Try to avoid giving an on-the-spot interview, Hockberger recommends. "Reporters can’t wait forever, but if it’s in any way possible, schedule the interview in the next day or two," he says. "It’s an immense advantage to call the PR people at ACEP for information. They can tell you if they deal with this magazine frequently, and if they are usually supportive of our issues, or sometimes it’s the opposite."

Get timely information. ACEP can fax you copies of policies or talking points about controversial or timely, legislative issues, Hockberger notes. "Once you have received that information, try to sit down and figure out one or two soundbites you’d like to get into the interview when you get the chance," he says.

Give a statistic and anecdote. "Reporters don’t want to be overwhelmed with data, but you should have at least one statistic to support the message you are trying to convey," says Hockberger. "Also, think of one anecdote, such as a conversation you had with a legislator. Reporters usually like those more than statistics."

Know when to go off the record. "If a question posed to you is confusing, it’s fine to pause and ask for clarification," says Hockberger. "You can also say, that last question took me by surprise, and I’d like to go off the record and not be quoted during that period of time."

In this situation, clarify that your response is just for background. "Explain that this topic wasn’t what you told me we would talk about," says Hockberger. "Trying to skirt the issue or address it in a superficial way can get you into trouble."

Don’t repeat negatives. "A classic example is a reporter saying in the middle of an interview, isn’t it true that most patients seen in EDs really shouldn’t be there? Or, isn’t it true that most physicians managing EDs are in fact unqualified?" says Hockberger. Listen to what they say, then give an answer which doesn’t repeat the negative statement, Hockberger recommends. "Instead, come back and say, I believe that physicians are qualified," he says. "Give the answer voiced in a positive way, rather than in a negative or defensive way."

Don’t be afraid to position yourself as an expert. "It’s a difficult balance. On the one hand, you don’t want yourself held out as an expert in an area you know nothing about," says Hockberger. "But on the other hand, very few people are world authorities on a given topic. So get out there and take a chance."

Don’t memorize what you plan to say. "One or two sound bites, a statistic, and an anecdote is all you need," says Hockberger. "Then go in relaxed and comfortable and try to respond to the questions. But as you answer, always look for the opportunity to insert the things you want to get across."

Learn what will be covered in advance. "It is absolutely fair for you to say, what is it we are going to be talking about, what are you trying to get from me?’ Then if they spring something on you, you can make a decision not to answer or go off the record," says Hockberger.

Don’t go off the record on camera. "One thing you have to be careful of is being on camera while you are asking to go off the record," Hockberger warns. "We have all seen 60 Minutes and how bad you look when you walk away in the middle of the interview. However, that usually isn’t the way people are treated."

Here are some types of news stories you may be asked to participate in:

National news stories. "For most ED directors, this is a result of community bad luck, as the usual lead is a tragedy," says Suter. "Those with an excellent track record with local media may have a shot at other stories, but this is unlikely."

Your relationships with a national media personality, a network medical reporter/physician, or your specialty association can give you an edge. "For example, ACEP has a network of designated spokespersons that reporters can be referred to on almost every topic," says Suter. "The good news is that, while network coverage is great, your administrator and community are happy with local coverage. After all, people two states away are not going to come to your ED."

Resist being a publicity seeker. "Sending your demo tapes to Dan Rather’s producer probably isn’t going to help much," says Suter. "Exposure to national media will come from having participated in an event or being a recognized expert on a given issue. Each of the major networks has a medical reporter who coordinates stories. Having a relationship with that individual is good, but that may be difficult without being overly self promoting."

Holiday stories. "Expect a call almost every holiday," says O’Leary. "From firework safety before the Fourth of July, to drinking and driving during the holidays, these are all local angles of big stories that you can offer insight on, because you’ve seen what happens."

Don’t shy away from these stories, says O’Leary. "You are reaching that larger audience, and it could just maybe cut down on your workload if they get the message," she explains.

This is an excellent opportunity to insert prevention tips appropriate to the season, O’Leary notes. "When they want to talk about firework safety, also suggest a little sunburn prevention, how to make sure that BBQ will not make you sick, or even more serious subjects like drowning."

Call the station a week before the big holiday and suggest a few things, says O’Leary. "Then they can plan ahead and won’t be calling you at the last minute, or calling your competition. Of course, this is if you have time," she notes.

Major disasters. If a major disaster strikes, you will probably be called upon to comment, says O’Leary. "For instance: How would your ED handle the Oklahoma City bombing? What happens when the president has been shot?" she asks. "These may seem far out, but your local station is looking for a way to tie you in, so jump at it. It’s good for business."

If a disaster occurs in your community, hospitals that treat the victims will likely be called. "If all patients were taken to your hospital, it doesn’t matter what your relationship is with the reporter, you are going to be called," says Suter. "If you’re one of several hospitals that got patients, the network staffers will probably contact their local media outlet in that community and/or ACEP to find out who does a good interview."

Anything that makes your ED unique. "If you have something that makes your ED stand out, let the local media know about it," urges O’Leary. "Call the newsroom and ask for the assignment manager. If there is viewer benefit, they should do the story."

Local incidents. "If several people become ill at a picnic or restaurant and were poisoned with a rare substance, and you are the ED physician who took care of them, you will be called as a source," says Hockberger. "It’s worth going to the nearest reference you can get to try and brush up on at least the basics."

Still, it’s not necessary to be overly prepared, says Hockberger. "What they are really looking for is an expert in managing the way the patient presents," he notes. "Your job is not to be a toxicologist. But if four people show up acutely ill, you understand there is a good chance there is a poisoning. You give them an antidote, if there is one, and, if there is none, you admit them to where they can be taken care of."

Reporters won’t be asking technical questions, says Hockberger. "They will probably ask you, does this happen very often at the hospital? What was it that tipped you off that this might be a poisoning? How did the family react?" he explains.

Human interest. Reporters like to cover the human interest angle, O’Leary notes. "If you have a patient that benefited from a procedure or piece of equipment, have their name handy," she recommends. "So if the patient is willing, the reporter can talk to them as well."

Be creative with story angles. "If your department adopted a child in a housing project, or a nurse or physician who climbed a mountain, you can present that as a human interest angle to show what great people you have working in your ED," says Suter.

New products or technology. "When a new respiratory nebulizer for kids was developed that was shaped like a teddy bear, the manufacturer managed to get ER’ to put it on the show. So the network suggested to affiliate reporters to do a follow-up story on the news," says Suter. "Because we had a children’s hospital, we were the ones who got that very high profile segment."