When speaking with the media about healthcare topics, provide up-to-date information, stick to the facts, and avoid medical jargon.
Lifelong Learning in Clinical Excellence | March 8, 2021 | 3 min read
By Stephanie McGann Jantzen, Strategic & Crisis Communications Professional
You went to med school to practice medicine. You learned over time the frustrations of a broken healthcare system, the politics of healthcare, and the challenges of giving excellent patient care in systems with many barriers. Then last year a novel coronavirus spread around the globe. In March 2020, the U.S. went into lockdown to contain the spread of COVID-19 and figure out what to do next with weak national leadership and marginalized infectious disease experts.
You eventually moved to telemedicine and for some, this went smoothly and for others, it was challenging. You and your patients did your best to adjust to this “new normal.” As COVID-19 ravaged the world and deaths rose exponentially, many lost their jobs and health insurance. Schools closed and children were now at home. The U.S. faced an insufficient supply of PPE, ventilators, hospital beds, and COVID tests.
The media turned its attention to the only people who could help the public understand what was going on. Healthcare professionals quickly rose to the top of booking agents’ lists for television, radio, podcast, and print media interviews. This is a good thing. The public needs the voice of experts. The level of misinformation and confusion has been high for over a year now. So let’s dive in to some of the basics.
The “dos and don’ts” for talking with the media:
1. Be prepared.
This interview may be within your specialty, but take a minute to Google or check social media beforehand to see if there are any updates to the information you’re about to discuss. You bring additional value if you have the most current information.
2. Be comfortable and approachable.
In this time of misinformation, you’re reminding people that you’re the trusted source. People are more likely to listen to a relaxed voice instead of a tense one.
3. Use analogies as often as possible.
Medical information is best understood when it’s relatable. For example, you could say something like, “Vaccines are like putting a knight in shining armor suit on your child before trick-or-treating. Bad viruses can’t hurt them when they’re protected with armor.”
4. Make sure your lighting is good and your computer camera is properly adjusted to the height just above your direct eyesight. Test your microphone for volume and make sure it’s working.
5. Wear a color that flatters you, with no patterns.
White shirts are ok if worn with a dark or colorful jacket. Minimize jewelry, you want the focus on your face and words, not on your looks.
Helpful phrases to include in conversations:
1. “This is what we know at this point and it could change. Science isn’t static. I realize this is frustrating, but we’re learning together. We may need to adjust guidelines as we learn.”
2. “We’re still learning about this new information, and at this juncture, here’s what we know.”
3. “I know this is confusing. Everybody’s tired. I know so many people are struggling. Hang in there with us. We’ll get through this if we all work together.”
4. “I want to encourage people to stay up to date with sources of expertise, such as the CDC and the FDA. If you have questions or concerns please talk with your doctor.”
If you’re asked to be interviewed, say yes. If you’re working at an institution, check with your communications/PR team for permission. Now more than ever, your expertise and experiences are desperately needed to help inform, engage, fight misinformation, and guide us out of COVID-19.
1. Don’t wing it.
Make sure you know (and if you don’t know, then ask) what questions the reporter has and what the angle of the story is, for example if the focus in on medical information or politics.
2. Don’t “over-answer.”
It’s very common as a healthcare professional with an extensive background in science and medicine to offer an answer that is “over the heads” of most listeners. KISS: (Keep It Simple, Stupid), and respectful.
3. Don’t assume.
If you’re asked a question and you’re not sure what information the reporter is after, say “I’m sorry I don’t understand your question,” or “I think you’re asking (x), is that correct?”
3. Don’t fidget or say “umm.”
If you twitch (bounce your knee or twiddle your thumbs), wiggle (move around in your seat or fiddle with your clothes), or say “umm,” you’ll look unprepared and make your interviewer and the audience uncomfortable. Body language matters
This piece expresses the views solely of the author. It does not represent the views of any organization, including Johns Hopkins Medicine.