Media Know-How Saves Face, Gets Message Across


WASHINGTON — Medicine and health are so often in the news that it may be worthwhile to be prepared to do interviews in a variety of media when the time comes, said Ms. Patricia A. Clark, a communications expert in media training, speech coaching, and message development from Ogden Dunes, Ind.

“The physician today cannot possibly get through his or her entire career professionally without talking to the media, so you better be ready,” Ms. Clark said at a meeting of the Society for Pediatric Dermatology.

Before one tries to get a particular message across during an interview, it is necessary to understand the medium through which the message is delivered (television, radio, print) and the messenger.

“If you don't understand the medium you're working with … and if you aren't an appealing messenger—and I don't mean handsome or beautiful, I mean eager, avid, happy to be here,” she said, then we will have 'remoted' you out before you get to the message.”

Stories on the evening news are packaged into preset lengths: a 90-second story, which normally provides 10–20 seconds for commentary from the physician; or a 110-second story, which could provide 30–40 seconds if the sound bite is good or just 10–20 seconds if it is not. When a person does not deliver a succinct message in those time frames, the media will pull out a piece of what was said when they are putting the story together, leaving the potential for misquotation.

The television camera diminishes appearance and does not catch subtlety, so it is necessary to restore what it takes away by increasing your smile, perk, and warmth. And on television, “every time you look away, you give away: You give away believability,” she said.

The media likes conflict and controversy, visuals, and emotion, which “for doctors means pulling patients out of your pocket … and putting a face on the complex issues” rather than drawing attention to yourself and your or your specialty's problems, she said.

Stories on the radio are not much different from television, but the lack of a visual element puts more focus on what is said.

Newspaper stories are now smaller than ever, and interview subjects may get only an inch or two of space—the media savvy will be higher in the story while those who are not end up at the bottom, according to Ms. Clark.

You are apt to be stuck at the bottom of a story if you are called at 9 a.m. to do an interview and the reporter's deadline is 3 p.m., but you decide to call the reporter back at 2:50 p.m. The story is blank at 9 a.m., but it's all ready to go at 2:50 p.m., and other sources have already weighed in with their interpretations of the issue. Your quote will be stuck at the bottom because it is too late to try to integrate it into the story, she said.

The concept of a “message box” can help physicians answer questions, but still return to the central message they want to get across. The message box consists of four points (more or less) around a box that you want to talk about or anticipate talking about during an interview. Each one leads back to the message that you want to convey, she said.

“No matter what question I ask you as a reporter, you answer my question, you acknowledge it, you neutralize it, and you use it as an opportunity to bridge back to one of these four sides,” she advised.

Points are scored only on offense. “When you're talking about what you want to talk about, that's offense. When you're answering my question, that's defense. So you want to take my question and use it as an opportunity to stay on message,” she said.

Not all questions have to be answered literally. A question might be an opening to deflect your answer to a point you want to make, Ms. Clark advised.

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