Request For Comment! Eight Things Every Oncologist Should Know When Talking to the Media

Aug 21, 2015

Atul Gawande. Jerome Groopmam. Mehmet Oz. The popularity of these nationally recognized physicians brings home a clear message: The media is interested in what doctors have to say. And while most doctors do not host syndicated television shows, many will be called upon by the media during the course of their careers to explain the findings of a study, clear up confusion around new health guidelines, or speak for the general policies of their home institutions or professional organizations, as volunteer leaders often do for ASCO.

When the media does come calling, it is best to be prepared and know the tricks of the trade that will put you in a position to convey your important message in a clear and concise way.

To help ASCO members succeed during their next media interaction, we interviewed our own in-house communications experts and ASCO Past President Clifford A. Hudis, MD, FACP, Vice President for Government Relations, Chief Advocacy Officer, and Chief of the Breast Medicine Service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, for their insights into the most important “dos and don’ts” for having a successful media interview.

1. Know your message and craft it carefully

Always remember “The Three Ps”—prepare, practice, and perform. (“Practice” and “perform” are covered in guidelines #3 and #4.) This first “p”—prepare—is the piece of advice our experts came back to again and again. The underlying idea behind preparing is that before speaking with any reporters, you should hone in on the key message you wish to convey and know how you will say it, so on the day of the interview, you can proactively shape your message rather than rely on the reporter’s own angle or perspective.

“You’re not in the interview only to respond to questions, but rather, you have to mentally take control of the situation and be on the offense,” said Dr. Hudis, who as an ASCO President participated in numerous press interviews. “You’re taking part in the interview because you’re trying to accomplish something, whether it’s to tell a story, boost a project, or gain resources. Remembering this will allow you to express your ideas clearly and succinctly and get your message out there.”

2. Keep it simple

The reporter assigned to your story may or may not have a medical background, so it is important to convey your message as clearly as possible. Remember that the reporter is looking to you to explain why he or she, and the public, should care about your research, policy, or new program.

“When preparing your message, don’t assume any detailed scientific knowledge or foundation on the part of the reporters,” said Dr. Hudis. “Explain things in a way that makes sense, and generally, that means at around an eighth-grade level of understanding.”

While communicating the main message in clear and basic language will serve you best, carrying that out might pose a challenge for doctors and researchers, who have been trained from early on to present complex, technical information using the classic structure of an academic paper—laying the groundwork with an introduction, carefully spelling out the methods and the results, and only then, in the discussion part of the paper, discussing the overall significance of the research.

When speaking to the media, you’ll want to do a 180 on this traditional order: Structure your interview so that you are presenting the conclusion at the beginning, in one or two engaging sentences, followed by more detail. Move on to describing the results, and then illustrate the significance of the findings with an example or a story that helps the reporter, the reader, or—in the case of radio—the listener visualize the message and place it in context. Then, circle back to the bottom line again, so that the reporter is getting the all-important take-home message at the beginning and at the end of the interview in a good, concise soundbite.

Preparing and presenting a message in a clear, concise way “takes a lot of work, but every minute you put in will pay off in terms of a more successful interview,” Dr. Hudis said.

3. Practice, practice, practice!

Once you have a solid grasp of your key message and have written it down, it’s time to practice. This is where you will want to ask friends, family, and coworkers to help you by taking on the roles of reporters in mock interviews. If your institution has a public affairs department, ask them if they can conduct the interview with you and give you feedback on your performance. Talking out loud before the actual interview will allow you to identify any snags in your presentation before prime time.

During the practice phase, your aim should be to gain mastery over presenting your message in as clear a way as possible. To get to that point of confidence, make sure to know your data in and out, thus preparing yourself for any obvious or possibly more challenging questions the reporter might throw your way.

“Know your data, know the background, know the context, know the facts, and know what your bottom line is,” said Dr. Hudis. “This is tricky, especially when talking about a complex topic, so you really have to know what your take-away message is, and as a strategy, it never hurts to start with the message and close with the message so that you’re repeating it multiple times throughout the interview.”

4. Perform

Think of the media interview essentially as a performance with the goal of catching the attention of the reporter and the public. To keep the focus on your message, speak with the interviewer in an engaging way, maintain eye contact, hold your hands in a natural way, and inject some passion into your delivery. And don’t be afraid to smile—even though the subject is cancer, you might be conveying positive news about recent breakthroughs or a new policy that will benefit patients.

If you are speaking to the reporter on the phone or recording a radio story, stand up during the actual interview— this will allow your breath to flow more easily and enable you to enunciate better. Standing up at a distance from your desk is also a way to prevent you from multitasking on your computer at a time when your sole focus should be the interview.

5. Keep the message positive

Despite your best efforts to shape the direction of the interview, you might find that the reporter is taking you down a path you’d rather not go down. In that scenario, say the ASCO Communications experts, it’s important to “bridge back” to your central message. Bridging back does not mean ignoring the question at hand, but it does mean finessing your answer so that your statement ends on a positive conclusion and with the message you wish to communicate.

Sometimes, due to nerves, researchers and doctors will bring up a negative subject that the reporter has not brought up, a situation communications professionals call “breaking into jail.” If all of a sudden you find yourself on a tough topic, find a way to veer your course onto a more positive path and return to your core message. Taking a breath or a drink of water can help you reset.

Along the lines of over-sharing is a piece of advice we heard repeatedly: Resist the urge to share all the details. Keep in mind that the emphasis of your interview is not on how much information you’re conveying, but how much is actually being received by the reporter. As a scientist, this downplaying of details might seem counterintuitive since details are the currency of rigorous research, but in a media interview, too many details might divert attention away from the main message you wish to convey and overwhelm the reporter. Bottom line: keep your message simple and on point.

6. If you’re caught in an unexpected interview, don’t feel you have to provide an answer

Preparing for a scheduled interview is one thing, but what happens when a reporter approaches you without warning and asks for a comment? If you find yourself in this kind of situation, you should feel free to either decline the interview or arrange for it to occur at a later time or date so you can prepare.

Also, beware of conducting an interview “off the record.” Sometimes what starts off the record ends up on the record, and a sense of security and informality can lead people to say much more than they may want to on a given topic.

“An unexpected interview is pretty risky in many ways,” said Dr. Hudis. “I think you should feel perfectly comfortable saying, ‘I just don’t have the answer,’ or, ‘I don’t feel comfortable commenting.’”

Dr. Hudis cautioned that doctors and scientists should avoid using language such as “no comment” since phrases like this sound defensive, as if the speaker is hiding an important piece of information. If you would like to take the interview, but only after you’ve had time to gather your thoughts and prepare your message, ask the reporter for his or her credentials and deadline and make plans to talk at a later time.

In certain cases, doctors and scientists are not at liberty to speak with reporters until they clear the interview with their institution’s Public Affairs departments. If this rule applies to you, say, “I don’t have the answer to that question, but if you would like, you can contact my Public Affairs office.”

According to Dr. Hudis, referring the reporter to your Public Affairs department might be the safest bet, especially if you’re not sure whether you can talk on record.

“There’s a justifiable reason for getting the okay from Public Affairs,” said Dr. Hudis. “As an employee of a large, well-known international organization, I have to be aware that what I say reflects upon my institution, and I owe them the opportunity to know when the media wants information.”

7. Dress conservatively

There’s a time and place for expressing your authentic self through clothing, but a media interview is not it. Dress in a conservative, unassuming way that doesn’t distract focus from your message. And while dressing conservatively doesn’t mean doing away with all color and patterns, you’ll want to turn yourself out in a way that keeps the focus on the science, and not on your attire.

8. Invest in professional media training

Both ASCO Communications experts and Dr. Hudis agree: If you think there is a chance you will participate in media interviews in some way, the best thing you can do for yourself is invest in professional media training.

Even if you don’t end up doing media interviews, learning how to communicate a message effectively is a lifelong skill that you will be able to apply to both your professional and personal life.

“Media training makes all presentations better, whether it’s speaking at a meeting, leading an organization, or providing a grand-rounds lecture or small-room discussion that scientists and physicians often engage in,” said Dr. Hudis. “Get some media training. To me that’s the single most important bit of advice.”

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