Talking to the Media

I had a question from an FHO reader about talking to the media, and I don’t have a tremendous amount of insight on this topic, because I don’t have a lot of experience in this realm. But there seem to be some useful resources on how to do this effectively (and if you have other advice or resources, please let us know in the Comments).

Child Clinicians and the Media is a publication offered by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. While it’s meant for therapists, specifically, the portion of it that seems pretty useful for all of us (even those of us who don’t work with kids) is the section on Asking and Answering Question–or more plainly, how to talk to the media.

I also found this, from the folks at Kaiser Permanente, aimed at clinicians:

Eight Tips for Having a Great Media Interview

Being interviewed by a reporter is a very human experience. The dynamics inherent in any interchange between two people mean that no two interviews will be exactly the same. The following eight suggestions, however, have proved helpful to physicians, managers, allied health professionals, and others preparing for interviews with reporters.

1. Be prepared.

No matter how thoroughly you know a subject, it never hurts to think about what questions may be asked and how you’ll answer them. If you’re not certain about key facts or figures, look them up. If possible, find out in advance what the reporter wants to know, who else is being interviewed, and what the reporter’s attitude toward the subject may be.

2. Expect off-the-wall questions.

Be aware of what else is going on in health care, since many reporters will toss in a question or two about current health issues even if they aren’t directly related to [your agency] or to your specialty. For example, obstetricians might be asked about cloning. Or a geneticist might be asked about the reliability of DNA evidence.

3. Speak in plain English.

Outside of scientific publications, don’t use jargon or big technical words unless you can immediately define them in terms understandable to people without medical training. For example, instead of “protease inhibitors,” try saying “new drugs that work to stop the AIDS virus from reproducing.”

4. Be concise.

Keep answers short. Twenty to 40 seconds is ideal. That’s about three or four medium-to-short sentences. Reporters will often pick the best 10-12 seconds from these short replies.

5. Guide the interviewer.

Don’t be led blindly along. Answer the reporter’s question but bridge back to your key points. And don’t be afraid to disagree with assertions a reporter makes or to correct misinformation you hear in a question or comment from a reporter.

6. Be interesting.

Kaiser Permanente’s National Media and Public Relations Director Dan Danzig says, “Getting quoted means taking complex ideas and making them real for the average personand average reporter.” So include an interesting fact, analogy, or example to enliven and clarify your answers. It’s okay to use an example from your clinical practice, but avoid naming patients or providing so much detail that confidentiality would be violated.

7. Don’t guess.

If you don’t know the answer to a question, don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know.” A bluff could end up being quoted as fact. If you think you can get the answer before a reporter’s deadline, offer to call him or her back. Then do so promptly.

8. Nothing’s off the record.

Never tell a reporter anything you wouldn’t want to see printed, televised, or broadcast over radio. If you’re not sure, that’s probably reason enough not to say it. And don’t be misled into thinking that just because cameras aren’t rolling or a reporter isn’t writing that what you’re saying is “off the record.” It isn’t.

Finally, remember that an interview is just an interview. If it ends up that a reporter misinterprets what you said, misquotes you, or quotes you saying something you wish you hadn’t said, it’s not the end of the world. Reporters are human and make mistakes just like the rest of humanity.


I will say that it’s critical that you know your organization’s policies on talking with the media and that you check in with your supervisor to make sure you are the appropriate person to have that media contact. Many organizations like to have their PR folks involved in coordinating or even supervising media interviews to help ensure a consistent message or keep the interviewer away from topics that may cast a more negative light.