Thursday, July 29, 2010

When John Fleck calls

Sooner or later, the press will call. What they call you, of course, depends. Here is some advice from Principal Investigator Advisor

Whether the reporter seeks background on an in-depth examination of a science or societal trend, a sound bite for breaking news coverage, or is focusing an unwanted spotlight, it is in your best interest to be prepared.

Here are 10 ways to do that:

  1. Know who is calling and why. Get the reporter’s name and media outlet. Find out why the reporter asked you for an interview, and try to get a sense of the his or her focus or angle. If you feel you are not the best person to address the subject, say so.

  2. Buy time to prepare. Confirm the reporter’s deadline. Set a time to speak within that time frame to allow you to the gather your thoughts. Resist the temptation to wing it.

  3. Know the audience. With the reporter’s outlet, angle, and audience in mind, consider both your message and the best way to convey it to that particular audience.

  4. Know your message and stay on it. Don’t leave yourself open to misinterpretation. Create a headline in advance and make it the lead point. Think of different ways to communicate that point, and be sure reinforce it in every response.

  5. Avoid jargon and technical language. You are not talking to your peers. Overuse of specialized terms will obscure your message and lose the audience. If a term is absolutely essential, use it and then define it in layman’s terms.

  6. Respect the reporter. Never talk down to or become argumentative. If a reporter is misinformed or cites incorrect facts, remember you are the expert and politely correct him or her. And, be sure to get the reporter’s name right in on-air interviews.

  7. Avoid “no comment.” This classic retort makes you look like you’re trying to hide something. If you cannot answer, explain why.

  8. Do not speculate. Speculative answers may come back to haunt you. If you can’t answer to a question, say so and promise to get back to the reporter with information. Hypothetical questions are notorious minefields. Do not be enticed to respond to what-if scenarios.

  9. If it shouldn’t be in the news, don’t say it. “Off the record” is a myth. Always be aware when microphones, cameras, or tape reorders are present.

  10. Appearance matters on camera. Dress simply and conservatively. Sit up straight. Be mindful of your body language. Don’t make Richard Nixon’s mistake (before his televised interview with John F. Kennedy): always say yes to make-up!


Steve Bloom said...

Hmm, it's not all that different from the advice Revkin flamed Pachauri for. The only thing I would is that these days one can do a quick google to get a sense of the reporter's prior relevant work.

Magnus said...

If speculation is involved be sure to say so every time you get that question if not they will use the part where you forgot to point uncertainties or similar things out.

Depending on the situation have a "answer-bridge-communicate" ready... If it is an aggressive reporter that talks about things you think is the wrong subject change it. eg...

reporter: So despite this interesting results almost no one in the US believe that AGW is real...

You: I have heard of this rumour but don't think it holds and any way this new scientificaly published article shows that almost all climate researchers firmly stands behind AGW. This is why it is so important that people get to hear abut the impacts of AGW like with our new study that shows that phytoplankton is down 40 %... this could be a real threat.

Gavin said...

Perhaps oddly enough, I don't agree with a number of these points. Some are fine - know who it is you are talking to and why, don't talk for the sake of talking, feel free to suggest better sources etc. But this idea that you have to 'create a headline in advance' is nonsense. Most journalists want to know what the context is for some news item, or the background, they don't need the scientists to be providing the headlines. Indeed, it is when journalists who call and only want a very specific quote such as 'west nile is caused by global warming!' that the worst problems arise.

Suggestions that you can't talk to someone when they first call are also off-base. If you have time, talk to people when you can - you don't always get a second chance. But if you are not comfortable talking about your science whenever and to whoever, perhaps you shouldn't be taking any calls at all...

Some people seem to get misquoted all the time. Some people hardly at all. Why is that?

In looking over media reports for years, the misquotes and mistakes are almost always from people who don't appear to have taken the time to give the proper context and to make sure that the journalist has understood the point. Scientists would do much better to look at these exchanges as chances to build trust and share domain knowledge, rather than as a (possibly antagonistic) interview. In hundreds of calls, I can only recall two that were anything like that.

Rocco said...

"Do not speculate. Speculative answers may come back to haunt you."

Judiiiiiiithhh! :)

EliRabett said...

Eli doesn't get a lot of calls from the media. Mostly someone else suggests the media person gets to get in touch with the Bunny and then comes an email from the refer and/or the media type.

In that case thinking about what is to be said and boiling it down to a headline has helped a lot. It also means that Eli gets very repetitious, saying the same thing multiple times.

Anonymous said...

This is all priceless advice. I used to work as a mainstream print (and radio) reporter and also helped scientist friends prepare information for dissemination and it's all solid and to the point.

Anonymous said...

Reading Gavin S.'s comment I would agree the headline thing can go overboard, and in controversies, you shouldn't miss a chance to at least say something. It also matters if you're just filling in an informational point, in which case you should explain briefly or pass them on if you can think of someone.