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…