10 tips to master media interviews
When a local reporter calls your office and needs an expert opinion on a veterinary topic, you might panic if you've never done it before. To help you avoid jitters and come off as the medical expert you are, we collected these 10 tips to help equine practitioners like you navigate media interviews
1. Get the lay of the land
Assemble as much information as you can about the nature/status of the situation, the content the reporter seeks, his/her media outlet, and the audience it reaches.
"You have a finite amount of time in any interview and you want your contribution to be impactful and of maximum benefit to your real audience," says Joan McGrath, a Chicago-based media trainer who's worked with veterinarians for more than 20 years. "You don't want to waste time rattling around—particularly in a crisis situation when time is of the essence."
McGrath and her partner, Myrna Pedersen, say that knowing the reporter's audience is critical—especially when deciding how much professional jargon you should use. You wouldn't use the same jargon talking to a newspaper that serves a general population as you would talking to a reporter from a veterinary publication.
2. Know the industry's stance on the issue
Before agreeing to an interview, ask what it is about and check with organizations like the AVMA and the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) on the topic. Dr. Christine Tuma, an equine veterinarian in Newark, N.Y., and volunteer for the AAEP's "Ask a Vet", recommends brushing up on these organizations' recommendations, especially obscure ones relevant to the reporter's questions but not to everyday practice.
"These organizations are the 'collective voices' for veterinarians and address many of the guidelines we use on a daily basis, ranging from official veterinary recommendations regarding the safety and welfare of animals to important ethical and legislative considerations surrounding the veterinary industry," Dr. Tuma says.
If you don't know the industry's stance on the issue and time doesn't allow research, don't worry, says Dr. Tuma: "Use good judgment and your education to construct an educated, logical, thoughtful answer."
3. Anticipate the questions the reporter will ask
Rehearse very brief answers to questions you don't want to dwell on and more robust answers to questions you do want to focus on. Time is of the essence during interviews, and you can decide how much time you spend on each question.
Practicing your responses to questions can also make you feel more comfortable during the interview. "If you really think through the questions, you're less likely to be blindsided," Pedersen says. "That's a huge comfort factor."
4. Be familiar with both sides of the issue
Dr. Tuma recommends that you understand both sides of controversial issues—like equine slaughter—so you can "enhance your knowledge of the subject, better your understanding, prepare you for adverse opinions, and reduce surprises." If you don't educate yourself, she says you could come off as unprepared, which could be embarrassing and potentially tarnish your reputation.
5. Be a good listener
If you've listened to the question carefully, Dr. Tuma says you are more likely to fully understand the questions.
"You'll be better able to answer well," Dr. Tuma says. "It can also help to prevent your saying too much or addressing issues not in the question."
To be a good listener, Dr. Tuma recommends being quiet and attentive, trying not to interrupt, showing patience, and using positive, open body language.
6. Strategize your message
What key point do you want the audience to hear? What substantial message can you deliver, concisely, that will also enhance your practice?
McGrath says that, if you know what message you want to give, you can lead the interview that direction. If it's a crisis situation, you can proactively steer the interview in a more positive way.
"You're being interviewed because you are the expert," Pedersen says. "You have an opportunity to contribute your points. Maybe they will spark some interest in the journalist, and you can integrate good news into a crisis situation."
7. Design "message enhancers"
Develop ways to make your responses interesting and colorful; for example, stories, examples, or statistics that will encourage the reporter to quote you. McGrath and Pedersen call them "message enhancers."
"Many of AAEP's on-call veterinarians have used analogies effectively to explain horse injuries to national TV reporters during the big races," McGrath says. "They liken what happened to a horse to a human condition. They explain that a fetlock joint injury is similar to a human athlete breaking an ankle."Analogies and 'message enhancers' help a general audience understand more complicated veterinary issues, and they create word pictures that stick in listeners' or viewers'minds.
8. Acknowledge potential discomfort
If the issue at hand is emotionally charged or controversial, Dr. Tuma recommends you bring it all out in the open and address it.
When Dr. Tuma practiced at racetracks, she fielded questions all the time about the treatment of racehorses, the use of drugs and medications to enhance performance in racing, the rate of racehorse catastrophic breakdowns and deaths, the overbreeding of Thoroughbreds, and the horse slaughter.
"The issues are all related to each, and you almost can't talk about one without it leading to another or all the rest," Dr. Tuma says. "And people have some very strong opinions." Don't hide from the controversy. Just keep it diplomatic, and maintain an open mind during the interview. You're educating, not arguing.
9. Be friendly during the interview
If you come off as too aggressive, the audience may dislike your approach and question your professional opinion. Dr. Tuma says that smiling and being the friendly, open, warm, awesome person you probably are will help the interview run smoothly.
If the interview takes an emotional turn or becomes uncomfortable, Dr. Tuma says it's especially important to remain professional and diplomatic. "Be aware that some people who feel emotionally charged about the issue or have strong opinions about the topic may get defensive and may have strong words, including the reporter," says Dr. Tuma. "That's OK. Don't get flustered. Remain the calm, controlled professional you are."
10. Don't speculate
It's safer to respond, "I don't know" than to wing it. Find opportunities to express the proactive messages you want to deliver. Keep your audience in mind before you use professional jargon.
"Were one of the on-call vets to say, 'The horse probably will get better,' when they don't know that empirically to be true, is not responsible," says Pedersen. "But to say, 'In other accidents I've seen of this nature, the injury has healed properly and the horse has gone on to race,' is responsible."
Make sure to take these tips into consideration when you find yourself on the spot for a media interview to help guide you through the process to make you feel more comfortable and come off as the expert you are.