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Ten Tips to Help Prep for the Press

Avitzur, Orly, MD

doi: 10.1097/01.NT.0000420998.63366.a4

In 2007, when I accepted the position of medical adviser at Consumer Reports, it was made clear to me that a substantial part of my job would involve interactions with the media. Five years and hundreds of television, radio, and print/web interviews later, I now realize that following some basic rules can make the process much more enjoyable. Since the press often reaches out to neurologists for interviews, and organization and hospital public relations departments often reach out to the press, it's likely you've already been contacted (or soon will be). So how can you get the most out of your next interview?

1. RESPOND QUICKLY. Every interviewer has a deadline. It may be only an hour for a CNN blogger or New York Times (NYT) reporter, or a day for a Today Show producer. Typically, several experts have been identified and it's simply a matter of who answers first. Ask for the deadline, and then consider whether you can meet it. The more responsive and flexible you are, the more likely it is that the journalist will call you again. “You have to be willing [sometimes] to drop what you're doing in the middle of the day,” said Lily Jung Henson, MD, a neurologist at Swedish Neuroscience Institute and medical director of its new hospital, Issaquah Neurology, who also has a master's degree in medical management. “You don't have time to think about it and respond in a month,” she added. Dr. Jung Henson serves as an AAN media expert on the subject of multiple sclerosis (MS).

2. PREPARE IN ADVANCE. After you establish the time frame, ask a few questions: What is the story about? Who is your audience? Where will it be published? Richard B. Lipton, MD, professor and vice chair of neurology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and director of the Montefiore Headache Center in New York, suggests asking if the interviewer is targeting a medical specialty audience, a primary care audience, or the general public. A longtime media expert for the AAN, Dr. Lipton advised, “Tailor your communications to the target audience of the media outlet.”

For television and radio interviews, inquire whether it will be live or recorded, and if the producer or host will agree to a pre-interview in order to get an idea of which questions will be asked. After you clearly understand the objectives, refine your message. I like to outline three to five key points I consider most salient, and script out the most persuasive facts to back them up. It's often useful to have an anecdote or two in mind to support your message and thereby make it even more compelling.

3. SPEAK IN PLAIN ENGLISH AND AVOID MEDICAL JARGON. It's the most common physician rookie mistake. Almost everyone has done it at one time or another, only to have the reporter interrupt and ask what those acronyms or that medical term means. Speak as you would to a patient, not a colleague. Say “stroke” instead of “cerebrovascular accident” and “pins and needles” instead of paresthesias. Run the language by a layperson. If he or she is confused, your consumer audience is likely to be as well. Explaining the context of your statements is equally important, said Dr. Jung Henson. “Reporters have a minimal understanding about the science behind a breaking study; you need to help guide them through its strengths and weaknesses and put it into a clinical context,” she continued. For example, in interviews on the subject of chronic cerebrospinal venous insufficiency, procedures in MS, she takes the time to explain the theories for the surgery and the absence of scientific results. In another interview in which a pharmaceutical representative had promoted the use of a brand name drug to the journalist, she provided detailed cautions about its side effects, cost and limitations of efficacy.

4. KEEP IT SHORT AND SWEET. I was fortunate to get extensive media training when I began my Consumer Reports job and to be given an initiation through frequent radio interviews. The art of the sound bite is an acquired skill. For example, in a recent interview for Forbes Magazine, CNN's Sanjay Gupta, MD, in describing how he learned to become comfortable on air, said everything came together for him when he followed this directive: “Try to think of the camera lens as a patient.” A great sound bite and great advice to boot! Listen to interviews on television or the radio to develop the right language. For a story on epilepsy packed with engaging quotes — while at the same time illustrating a writer's limitation of drug knowledge — see the NYT's “New Epilepsy Tactic: Fight Inflammation:” You may only have seconds to relay your message, so this is a case for less is more. If your key points cannot be articulated quickly and succinctly, revisit your selection; it may be too complicated. It's best if you simplify your response, rather than risk being misunderstood or quoted out of context.

5. DON'T GAMBLE ON A GUESS. Vilayanur Ramachandran, MBBS, PhD, DSc, director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, San Diego, where he is also a distinguished professor with the psychology department and neurosciences program, cautions his students to be careful when speaking to the press. “When commenting on topics about which you are not familiar, I tell them to say ‘I don't know’ or ‘that's not in my expertise,’ rather than taking a guess,” he said. Best known for his fascinating discussion of phantom limbs, synesthesia and mirror neurons, Dr. Ramachandran also stresses the importance of making it absolutely clear when you are speculating, not stating fact. He recalls one instance when he suggested to a journalist that mirror neuron dysfunction may be causing autism; although he still believes that it is the most promising theory for the disorder, he had indicated that the evidence was suggestive not conclusive. Unfortunately, that qualifier was omitted and he was subsequently misquoted by other publications that picked up the story. Nevertheless, the vast majority of journalists have been very insightful, and have included his cautionary notes, he added.

Media training experts suggest that questions you may be unable to answer may actually serve as an opportunity to present your message. Consider responding, “While I cannot answer that question because the science is not clear (or it is outside my field, etc.), what I can tell you is this…” Similarly, when asked to comment on a high profile or celebrity case, it's best to say: “I cannot comment on the specific case since I have not seen the patient and I don't have all the medical facts of the case. But I can tell you about this condition.”

6. EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED. Sometimes the angle changes or the interview is not as billed. It's not unusual, in fact, for a member of the press to ask questions off-topic or to digress in a seemingly irrelevant direction. In an early experience with live television in which I was asked to discuss the comparative nutritional values of various cereals, the hosts began talking about cartoon characters (Lucky, the Leprechaun, and Toucan, the Fruit Loops bird) and slogans (Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs). Sometimes you just have to go with the flow. Dr. Lipton describes media interviews as almost uniformly positive experiences, but reluctantly recalls one incident in which he was quoted as a supporter of a position he would spend a lifetime opposing. “When that happens, it usually represents an honest misunderstanding and sometimes my own misstatement,” he admitted.

7. REHEARSE. Practice delivering your message, preferably to an audience of at least one. Just as you'd rehearse a professional presentation, rehearse your interview script.

8. ASSUME NOTHING IS “OFF THE RECORD.” I learned this the hard way when an investigative reporter at a well-known business newspaper asked for a neurology coding expert under the guise of information gathering, but turned out to be seeking an indictment of one physician's billing practices. Although I refused to cooperate, his persistence was daunting, and after spending several hours speaking to him, I felt duped. “Remember that your objective and that of your reporter may not coincide,” Dr. Lipton warned. “You may want to educate or communicate important information, while the reporter may want a great story, and if it is at your expense, that may be okay,” he explained. “Anything you say to a reporter is on the record unless you explicitly agree that it is off the record. You may not be happy when your joking side comment is the only quote from you that appears in a story,” he reflected. Ask reporters if you can review your quotations prior to publication. “They may say no, but it does not hurt to ask,” concluded Dr. Lipton.

9. ASK IF IT'S “FOR ATTRIBUTION.” Some writers will ask for an interview that turns out to be a fishing expedition. Find out at the beginning of the process whether the interview is “for attribution” or “on background.” If it's for attribution, it's best to be explicitly clear about your designated affiliation. Most of us have more than one of these, and unless you want to be surprised, state it clearly. This may be your practice name and location or your academic title and institution. Or you may prefer to cite authorship of a book, or leadership position in a professional organization. If you've been referred to the writer from a press office, you want to be sure that the correct affiliation is preserved. To play it safe, include it in your e-mail signature. “On occasions I have done long interviews with broadcast journalists only to find my words coming out of the anchor person's mouth without attribution,” Dr. Lipton recalled, adding “When the public health message is correct, I am fine with that, despite my frustrated wish to make my mother proud.”

10. DON'T BE A SNOB. The intern blogging about migraine for a little known website today may become the next health reporter for the New York Times. It's all about building relationships over the years and being dependable. I recently heard the rebroadcasting of a 2002 National Public Radio segment “Rolodex Journalism”: (The tool is outdated, but reporters' dependence on reliable sources still applies.) As Norman J. Ornstein said in the program: “I find now, compared to 10, 15, 20 years ago, a lot more laziness on the part of reporters, people who turn to the same sources because they pretty much know what they're gonna get, and there isn't any use in lookin' around.”

Dr. Avitzur, a neurologist in private practice in Tarrytown, NY, holds academic appointments at Yale University School of Medicine and New York Medical College. She is an associate editor of Neurology Today and chair of the AAN Practice Management and Technology Subcommittee.

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On the record: Anything you say is free game.

On background: Permission to print information without using a source's name.

Off the record: Proceed with caution, or better yet, avoid it altogether to prevent potential embarrassment. Although technically this restricts the journalist from using any of the information, often journalists will try to get the material from another source. This term may be subject to nuanced interpretation; for example, many reporters consider what you say to be quotable but not attributable.

Not for attribution: The writer may quote you but not identify you by name; when you read the term “FDA sources” or “a source in the pharmaceutical industry” it's based on comments “not for attribution.” Discuss the identifying terms in advance. The reporter may want to identify you as a stroke specialist from Kansas City, whereas you may be more comfortable with “a neurologist in the Midwest.”

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The AAN receives thousands of calls from the national and international media each year seeking a neurology expert to comment on a study or comment on a specific disorder topic, world event, or scientific news update. Having a core list of AAN members who will respond to media interview requests on behalf of the Academy helps promote the role of the neurologist and keeps the AAN visible with the media, and the patients and caregivers we serve. If you are interested in becoming a member of the AAN's Media Experts program, please contact Rachel Seroka, senior administrator of media and public relations, at

© 2012 American Academy of Neurology