Media Training and Strategy

Judy Fortin, Executive Director of Communications at UCLA Health and an award-winning former broadcast journalist, recently presented a webinar on media training for scientific experts. The webinar was tailored to cancer communicators to give you the expertise to become an internal media training expert at your own cancer center in lieu of pricey training offered by outside contractors.

A good media training session should be something that every expert or specialist has at some point during their career, Fortin explained. Since joining UCLA, she has been making sure their experts – from the CEO and President to infectious disease specialists – has had a refresher session on media training.

Fortin starts every session with the expert asking them what they want to get out of an interview. Do they want to build your own brand? To get good information out there? All of the above?

Some tips she offers all of the experts, whether they are the president or an early career researcher:

  • Stay in your lane.

Journalists often ask questions of experts that they may or may not be able to answer. In a recent example, many journalists are now asking questions about vaccine development. Unless you are an expert on vaccine development, you probably shouldn’t talk about it!

  • Do not speak on behalf of the institution unless you are designated to speak on behalf of the institution.

For example, during the pandemic, UCLA has been asked questions such as how much money have you lost, how many health workers have been exposed – these are questions that experts should avoid tackling unless they have been designated to do so.

  • Answer the questions that are asked.

Don’t offer many answers for a single question.

  • Anticipate the dreaded questions.

These can be intimidating and something the expert finds difficult to answer.

Fortin underscored the value of media training. She gives three reasons to experts why talking to the media can be valuable: To increase your visibility as a subject matter expert, improve stature of your institution, and position yourself in your department or with your employer.

She also explains to her experts what it means to be a thought leader. The first thing she tells them is that they need to say yes. That means being available to answer emails, respond in a timely manner, and connect with communications specialist in your department to help guide you through the process. Remind them you are here to help! We can give talking points, do a mock interview with them beforehand, or correct something with the reporter.

You need to know your audience so you can help your expert, Fortin explained. It is important to know whether the outlet targets peers or a lay audience, and whether the audience may be familiar with the subject matter. Make sure the expert can translate the topic from jargon for the audience if needed.

To prepare your expert for an interview, Fortin offers several tips:

  • Think about the time of day to help your expert plan what to say.

A Today Show audience is likely busy and multitasking and would benefit from short bits of information, while those listening to NPR in the car during afternoon rush hour are a more captive audience.

  • Ask if the reporter will provide a list of questions or at least an outline.

You may not always get this, but you can provide your experts with questions and go over talking points to prepare.

  • Tell experts to know their facts.

It is very reasonable that your expert will be asked stats about cancer, such as: How many cancer survivors are alive in the US? How many Americans will be diagnosed with cancer this year? Understanding incidence and mortality rates in your area is important as well. The American Cancer Society has these current statistics.

  • Find out if anyone else is going to be interviewed as well.

Help avoid an awkward situation!

  • Practice with your experts, but don’t have them memorize remarks.

Help them organize their thoughts using bullet points or index cards. Run through mock interviews to practice because they should not read off of anything during the interview!

  • “Is there anything else you want to add?”

Interviews are often wrapped up with the reporter asking the expert whether there is anything that they haven’t discussed. This is a good time for your expert to add an important point you might not have been able to talk about earlier in the interview.

  • Have examples and anecdotes.

“XXXX times a week I have patients who XXXX.” But be sure not violate HIPAA! Do not say “I have a 35-year-old patient who works at Coca-Cola in Atlanta who was diagnosed with breast cancer” – this is too much information! Be careful not to share any possibly identifying information about specific patients.

  • You are ALWAYS on the record!

It is important to prepare your expert on delivering their message, Fortin explained. Prep them on how to properly give their name and title to ensure your institution is properly designated. Make sure your expert gets to the point. Be careful with body language – don’t put them in swivel chair, make sure they are comfortable, give them water, remind them to be careful with using their hands. Make sure they can translate medical jargon and explain complicated ideas to the audience when necessary.

Work with them to develop a concise sound bite that can stand on its own: Radio should be about 10 seconds, TV should be under 20 seconds, and print should be one sentence.

Remind your expert to answer in a complete thought: don’t let the journalist put the words into your mouth or take anything out of context. “There will be about 1.8 million Americans diagnosed this year with cancer” is a better answer to the questions “How many Americans will be diagnosed with cancer this year?” than simply responding with “about 1.8 million,” Fortin explained.

Prepare your expert for pushback. People have differing opinions in many aspects in oncology so they may be challenged; remind them not to get defensive and just explain themselves, Fortin said. She also recommends they “anticipate the dreaded question,” which are usually related to areas where various experts may not agree, such as cancer screening or treatment plans.

Train your expert not to say “no comment,” Fortin said. Journalists think it means that you’re hiding something, so prepare some statements that can be used when your expert cannot or does not want to comment. Fortin gave some examples:

  • Cite HIPAA, “Due to patient privacy, we are not able to give any information about patients that may be at our institution.”
  • If your expert does not know the answer to the question or cannot answer it: “Good question but I’m not the right person to answer that question but our media relations team can get you the right person to talk to about that.”
  • Your expert might be asked something they do not have the answer to at that moment: “That’s a really good question, but I don’t have the answer right now. Let me check on that and I’ll get you the answer,” or “Someone will follow up with you.”

Fortin also provided specific tips for your expert depending on the interview medium. For example, in print and digital interviews, have direct quotes read back to them. Think short and conversational for radio interviews. Always look at the reporter during live television interviews and directly at the camera during remote interviews such as on Zoom or Skype.

Fortin summed up the webinar with key points for your experts:

  • Time is of the essence.
  • Summarize key points.
  • Define call to action. For example, to reduce your risk for cancer, don’t smoke.
  • Anything to add? Go back to your key points.
  • Bring it home!



Become a Member Institution

As a PAMN member institution, your employees benefit from an extensive network of communications and marketing professionals employed at academic cancer centers.

Already a member? Login