Media Training… need it… or not?

Sometimes, at the request of my institution and very occasionally for other reasons, I agree to be interviewed by reporters.

I do not like to talk to reporters.

I do not like to talk to reporters, because I do not know HOW to talk to reporters. The rules of science communication, after all these years, are clear to me. The rules of scientist- reporter (or fill-in-the-blank profession- reporter) communication are still very muddy. In one of my very first interviews, given at the request of my institution, I made a couple of silly remarks. These comments were not inaccurate or scientifically wrong, but just things I wish I had said differently… maybe in more ‘professional’ language. For a while there, if you Googled my real life name, you could see these things that I said… that I wished reporters hadn’t quoted so darn precisely. I learned to tell reporters that anything that I said that they were going to quote, they had to get OKed by me in print prior to publication or I wouldn’t talk to talk to them. For the most part, this worked out well.

Learning how to talk with reporters- is like everything else we do as faculty that isn’t bench science- is mostly learned by training in the school of hard knocks. I suggest that it shouldn’t be so- institutions should train us to talk with the media. Why? Because these days your hard knocks can end up as a sensational quote on the evening news, in the paper, or on the world wide web. Yet another overly articulate nerd with too professorial a delivery, divulging too much or too little, in jargon no non-scientist can understand. And from a more pro-active perspective- I think if we know how to communicate a message to reporters- we might be able to use that skill preemptively to educate a wider audience about many topics- our scientific subject areas, science policy, how scientific discoveries are made… and how they are paid for.

Anyway, recently I agreed to talk with a reporter about an area of my career that is sometimes difficult, the being-a-girl playing on the boys field part of my career. I feel very strongly that talking equally about the challenges as well as the enjoyable parts of my job are important for the equal advancement of women in science. I recognized during the interview that although I think and write about this subject relatively frequently (how can I not?), I was still unprepared for this interview. Maybe I said more than I should have to the reporter- maybe I naively thought that when I told her something was off the record, it was really off the record. See- my brain didn’t make the shift to a format where I have to censor myself in real time, and where I have to consciously control the message I put out and the information I give out  very, very carefully. In any case- this is one subject, in addition to my area of professional expertise, where it is important for me to have a clear message and to get it out there with no room for mis-interpretation.

I was so uncomfortable with this experience that I decided to go to media training this morning- to gain some insight on what to do… and maybe more importantly.. what NOT to do when giving an interview or talking with reporters.  Yes, the moderator fellow went on and on a little-  and I wished that we could have had some small group exercises to help me hone my interviewee skills… but I think attending was a step in the right direction for me. Here are the rules I took away for providing an effective interview:

A. Prepare and practice. -Who is this reporter and what do they want from you? Who else are they interviewing? ….PREPARE YOUR MESSAGE. Think about the kinds of questions that might come your way- practice SHORT (<10 second) answers to even the most difficult questions you might encounter, staying on your message.

B. Keep it simple. De-jargonify your answers. This is difficult for those of us accustomed to speaking in scientific jargon- but it is necessary for effectively delivering your message to a public that doesn’t generally understand the jargon as well as you do.

C. NEVER wing it. This should be self explanatory.

Seems pretty common sense, doesn’t it? Sounds a lot like some of the rules for giving a scientific presentation- but we have to remember to drop ALL the jargon and stay simple, direct, an on our PRE-DETERMINED message. Stay on your message… practice it… stick to it… don’t allow yourself to be derailed. A couple more things that were said that I found interesting were:

1. It doesn’t really matter what the question was- answer it, or deflect it with a positive statement- Then… make a bridging statement to YOUR MESSAGE point… and deliver your message. (I realize that this is what politicians do that always has me screaming ‘JUST ANSWER THE QUESTION’ at the television)…

2. Listen carefully for questions in which the interviewer is asking you to speculate. DO NOT TAKE THE BAIT.. and do not answer with speculation. See #1.

3. Reporters are not your friends or enemies. Don’t do idle chit chat with them…. lest you forget yourself and say something that you would regret being quoted on later.

I’m sure you all will have something to add… so fire away…


7 thoughts on “Media Training… need it… or not?

  1. As a media trainer (and like most trainers, a former reporter), I’d say you got the crux of the basics. I’d add just a few things: preparation means preparing for the questions, not just preparing your answers in the form of messages. It does no good to prepare messages if what you want to say has nothing to do with what the reporter wants to ask you. That’s where the homework comes in. An interviewee needs to ‘interview the interviewer’ before hand, so you know what the reporter is hoping to write and from what sources.

    Secondly, communicating your points even on the most complex subjects in a clear, focused way for non-scientists is not as difficult as it may seem. You probably do this all of the time without realizing it. When a friend outside your field asks you how that ‘work/life balance thing’ is working for you, or what’s new at work, you likely reach for the language you know your friend will understand. That’s not ‘spin’ or ‘dumbing down’. It’s communicating. That’s exactly what you do with a reporter (but hopefully the reporter isn’t staying for dinner).

    One last point: Thanks for advocating the need for training. What you’re really advocating is for scientists to speak for themselves about what matters to them. I can think of no one better placed to do that than those with the most knowledge.

  2. As someone who has been helping others to successfully engage the media for almost 25 years, I’ll tell you that I agree whole-heartidly with most of your points here except for one – Don’t do idle chit chat with them.

    This might be valid, assuming you’re not smart enough to have idle chit chat AND remember what it is you want to talk about. I’ll give you more credit than that.

    Fact is, I encourage my clients to get to know the reporter.

    What’s missing here is that the reporter is just like you and me…they have a job to do, they have a deadline by which to get it done, and they have a boss back at the office who’s riding their backside to ensure they’re getting it done. And at the end of the day, they want to go home, have dinner with the family, and turn on American Idol.

    For most every reporter I’ve ever met, this means that they want to do their job well, which, for them, means they want to produce a compelling and truthful news story. Tricking you into revealing something during idle chit chat is not in the best interest of their credibility and reputation. They’d quickly find themselves with nobody willing to be interviewed by them.

    I’ve been both a reporter and an advocate for the interviewee, and I can tell you that rarely is the reporter “out to get you”. They simply want to report the truth. Now, if you’re hiding something, well then…..

    In fact, I think your most telling comment in this post is this – “…I wished reporters hadn’t quoted so darn precisely.”

    They reported exactly what you told them to report. This is why you must be prepared with your messages.

    At the end of the day, this is a RELATIONSHIP industry. If you truly want to understand the reporter’s motivation and whether or not he/she truly respects the sanctity of the “off-the-record” concept, then get to know them. Build a relationship of trust. Or come to a decision that he can’t be trusted, and move on. And remember, it’s a two-way street. If you become known as someone who is honest with reporters, you will find reporters who will be honest with you.

    And by all means, know exactly what you want the reporter to report, tell them what you want them to report, and chances are pretty darn good, they’ll report it.

    This is all a fine balancing act that you master only with practice. But once you’ve mastered it, you have a very powerful tool in your toolkit.

    Congratulations on taking the steps to become a better interviewee!


  3. Rick and Aileen- Thanks for your comments. I’m not sure I want to ‘engage’ the media or build a relationship with reporters, beyond being able to respond when invited to do so. I only want a couple of things:
    1. I want to do great science. I want my knowledge about the science that I do and the issues that are important to be accurately reflected in what is put out there by the media, when I am asked.
    2. I want the public to understand what scientists in universities do, how they do it, and WHY it is a great investment of their tax dollars.
    3. I want people to understand that despite what they might think, gender inequity is alive and well today, right here in river city.

    I think I’m starting to prep my messages…. 🙂

  4. I can’t resist pointing out that your goals in 2. and 3 are not in sync with someone who only wants to speak out on those rare occasions when she’s asked. If you want the public to understand science so they’ll support it, if you want them to understand the fight for gender equity isn’t over, you’re going to have to stop waiting for someone else to communicate that. What was that Frederick Douglass said about people “who want crops without plowing up the land; who want rain without thunder?”
    Good luck with both the messages and their hopefully, incresaed use in the future.

  5. Hello from a newbie. 🙂 Thank you for this post – and the comments it inspired. The media relations advice here is solid. Following up on what Aileen says, I guess I would argue that someone as eloquent and passionate about science as you are has a responsibility to do more than blog. When asked for interviews, I propose that it is your social responsibility to take on a little bit of uncomfortable limelight, because you can. If you want to limit it, that is entirely your right, but consider that I knew nothing of until Bora Z. tweeted this article and I was compelled by the headline to click. I would have never known of you or your work had it not been brought to my attention by someone with significant influence over what I read and consider. And I am a science-loving geek, unlike most of the people voting on policy that impacts your ability to keep doing what you love. So if you want to retain your safe position at the bench, I would recommend taking those opportunities where they come to speak with the big-bad journalists, while protecting your dignity and boundaries, of course. It’s a service to yourself and to other scientists who may lack the competencies you hold. My random two cents, expressed with warm regards.

  6. Very nice post!

    I’ve never had to be interviewed by a journalist (although I had a close call recently when all the actual authors of a paper that attracted media interest were out of town, and my boss said I should do the interview as I was “broadly familiar” with the work… the journalist turned down that offer, though!), but I do help out with press releases and press conferences from time to time. I’ve found a book published by the Union of Concerned Scientists, called A Scientist’s Guide to Talking with the Media, absolutely invaluable, and I recommend it to any scientist (at any career stage) who’ll listen. It’s available here and it covers radio, TV, and print media as well as press releases and the like.

    I haven’t had to dip into it for a while, but next time I do I’ll try to remember to write a review on my blog!

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