MedEconomics: Simple strategy for handling the press

Media expert Ann Bird offers tips on how to respond to questions from reporters.

Do you ever have nightmares about being at the centre of a national newspaper campaign or caught up in the publicity of a GMC hearing? Do you panic about being 'doorstepped' by a journalist wanting a comment about a patient's care?

Every year, the Medical Defence Union receives up to 160 requests for help from members who have been contacted by the media about a patient's care or treatment.

However much you might want to avoid journalists, there will probably be at least one occasion in every doctor's career when the paths of media and medicine cross.

Handle that meeting well and you could reap all sorts of benefits (enhanced reputation and profile); handle it badly and your integrity and professional ability could suffer.

Simply by following some simple guidelines, you can hugely increase your chances of favourable coverage.

1: Play for time - Firstly, never enter into an interview with a journalist if they 'cold call' you. Make sure receptionists and practice managers understand this too.

Always get their phone number and ring them back, even if it's to say you're not able to do an interview. Apart from anything else, it allows you to check they are who they say they are and buys you time to gather some facts and figures.

2: Be friendly - Don't treat the reporter as the enemy. Most of the time journalists are not out to trip you up. Many enquiries are simply to gather information.

3: What's the focus? - Do some basic 'housekeeping'. Ask the journalist what's the angle, who else they are interviewing, and (for broadcast media), will the interview be live or recorded? How long will it take?

4: Deadlines count - Respect deadlines - even if you don't believe them. Pages will not go out with white space, or airtime with silence. If you have something to say, make sure it is given in time.

Remember, by not talking to a reporter, you run the risk of someone more 'damaging' doing so.

5: Seek legal advice - If it sounds like a 'hot topic' or is fraught with danger, seek further advice from your medical defence organisation and tell your primary care organisation.

6: You are the expert - Do not over-estimate the journalist's knowledge. Most of the time they want to speak to you because you are the expert. If they are asking about a specific case, simply explain that, much as you would like to help, you cannot comment because of your duty of confidentiality. This is better than a flat 'no comment'.

7: Always on duty - Journalists are always 'on duty'. Just because the recording equipment is not running or they are not writing notes does not mean they are not gathering information. Medical conferences and conversations in lifts are 'fertile ground' for quotes.

8: Be understanding - Finally, be understanding. Very often reporters are trying to present both sides. You can be part of that balance.

- Ann Bird, a former health editor of the Daily Express, runs A-B Media, which provides one-day training courses for GPs, practice staff and PCTs.

For more information email A_BMedia@btinternet. com or call (020) 8390 4706.

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