Medical Media Management

This is a completely non-clinical piece.

Over the last 3 years I have been doing a weekly radio “spot” on ABC radio in WA.  10 minutes, once a week with a mix of medical and health topics including some live talkback Q&A.  It has been a really interesting experience and I have learned a lot – both about Medicine, but also about communication and how the media works.   There is truly nothing more challenging and terrifying than to do “live medicine”.

Last week I hung up the microphone for the last time – so I thought I would take a moment to reflect and share my thoughts with you all.

I think that this is a good topic to discuss as most of you will at some time have cause to be interviewed or make some sort of statement to some sort of public media – radio, TV or maybe an online journal.  It can be daunting and most doctors I know have a visceral aversion to discussing anything to do with their work in a public forum – we are perfectionistic types and it is a high-stakes environment – what you say might be broadcast to thousands of people… somebody is sure to disagree!

So here are my insights, tips and Lessons Learned:

  1. Relax & be yourself.  Most media interviews are conversational in nature – so you need to imagine that you are chatting one-on-one with the journalist.  Trying to talk  in a more formal fashion tend to make you sound awkward and artificial.
  2. Slow down.  Anxiety and time pressures tend to make us talk faster than usual.  This is bad on radio / TV – it makes it hard to listen and tends to confuse the message.  I have found that one needs to deliberately slow the tempo of one’s speech in order to sound like a real human!  Also try to avoid prolonged sentences / speeches.  There is an impulse to say everything that you know in one giant monologue.  This is not good radio!  Keep it chatty!
  3. Less is more.  Depending on the media you could get as little as 10 seconds air time.  It might be a few minutes, but generally TV and radio tend to go with short sharp interviews….  so that means  that you have an extremely small window to get your message across. You need to have a premeditated “sound byte” ready on the tip of your tongue.  A single sentence or phrase that you want to use to communicate the core message or statement that you are trying to make.
  4. Reasearch is a double-edged sword.  Knowing a lot about a topic is good, however it can make for a dull conversation.  So doing research is sometimes a waste of time and may confuse the message.  In my experience 95% of my research was unnecessary  – it was superfluous to the requirements.  Sure – you need to know the facts, a few hard numbers are useful – as you will be asked for them.  However, remember that the audience are regular folk – not a room full of Medical Students or colleagues.  They want to know the big picture, no jargon, no subtleties of evidence.  It is your job to interpret the evidence, science or research that you are being asked about – and make it digestible for the audience.  Qualitative answers are usually superior to quantitative ones for most topics and audiences.
  5. What is the angle?  Journalists are in the trade of selling stories.  They love a new angle, a fresh idea, a gritty story – or even better some controversy and drama.  We, doctors, tend to shy away from all that.   However, this is the reality of the media.  My advice is to take the bull by the horns!  Come up with your own angle, a new way to look at the topic, make it interesting or fun.   Otherwise one of two things might happen. Either you end up sounding really dull, or you will be put in a situation where you are part of the drama – they will push you to make it edgy – and this may not be where you wanted to go!
  6. Be hard on the problem, soft on the person.  I have had a few occasions where I have been asked for an opinion where I know it will be contradictory to another public opinion.  In this situation there is a real risk of offending a colleague, or at least sounding adversarial in a public forum.  My advice is to “play the ball, not the man!”. [Sorry – an Aussie Rules footy expression.]  Argue about the problem, explain the difficulty and why there are differing opinions.  But avoid any ad hominem attacks.  Journos can sense a conflict – so ensure it remains gentlemanly.
  7. Choose your words carefully.  You may give a 10 minute interview that ends up as a 30 second “bit” in the news.  So remember point 3 above.  But, you need to be careful.  Sentences can be taken out of context and sound really terrible.  So watch exactly what you say, and let the journalist know if you feel you said something that might be misconstrued.  Usually a quick correction or clarification can resolve any slips.
  8. Avoid absolutes.  There are few thing in medicine that are absolutely true, false, wrong or right.  But the public like a clear answer – an expert opinion one way or the other.  There is a risk of being misinterpreted if you give too hard an opinion – so you need to have words like ‘usually’, ‘commonly’, ‘in most cases’ in your vocabulary.  Otherwise you know that your words will be interpreted as Gospel truth by somebody out there.  I make exceptions for subjects such as smoking and vaccinations etc – if you have an opportunity to spread a good Public Health message – then do it loud and clear!
  9. Empathy is key.  If you are talking to a “patient” – somebody who has a problem then you need to be really compassionate.  Clearly it would be foolhardy to give specific advice or consult “on air” – but there is no reason one cannot empathise with a caller’s suffering.  I have and plenty of occasions where callers have wanted to discuss their personal medical problems on the radio – this is a treacherous ethical area – however being empathic and showing basic human understanding is vital and completely acceptable in my view.
  10. It is all about Education.  The reason that I gave up my time ver the last few years was simple – it was a great opportunity to spread good health messages in a time when our media is saturated with mistruths and quackery.  Recall every time you have tried to talk a patient out of oral ABs for a runny nose – for me this was a chance to have those types of conversations with thousands of people at once.  If your goal is to promote health and prevent injury then it is all worthwhile I think.

Anyway, that is all we have time for today. 😉

If you have any questions about this type of thing, experiences about being on the media that you want to share – hit me on the comments below.  Hope you find this useful once day!


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