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 Interviewing Guidelines

Being quoted in a newspaper, online, on television, or interviewed on radio is one of the most coveted means of reaching the public. Unfortunately, many people say they were misquoted, or that the reporter didn’t use the right quote, or that the statistics were wrong. All of these situations can be avoided with good preparation.

The natural reaction to a reporter’s question is to simply answer the question. Then, deliver the desired message to the audience of readers, viewers, or listeners. While skilled at providing medical information, some vascular surgeons may not have developed the skill of answering medical questions and transitioning the answers to provide specific messages for the community. These guidelines offer suggestions to develop this important skill.

Prior to the Interview
Before responding to reporters’ questions, ask a few questions:

  • What is the focus of the story?
  • Who else will be interviewed?
  • What is the reporter’s deadline?
  • Will the interview occur via email, face-to-face, or over the phone?
  • Will a photo or video be used in the story?
  • What supporting information will the reporter need? Do they want to speak to a patient?

Once you have this information, ask the reporter to call them back at a specific time well within their deadline. Even if this is only 5 or 10 minutes of preparation, this time will help to develop the messages for the targeted audience. (See Talking Points and The Interview is Your Chance to Deliver Your Messages below.) For instance, if the subject of the story is a famous person who suffered an abdominal aortic aneurysm, consider talking about the Medicare screening benefit, why people should be screened, and why consulting with a vascular surgeon offers the best possibility for diagnosis and treatment. Skilled interviewees know how to transition from describing what an abdominal aortic aneurysm is to delivering their messages. Take a few minutes prior to the interview to allow yourself time to think about statements and gathering supporting statistics and information.

Talking Points
The reporter is not an expert in vascular disease. Keeping in mind that the readers, viewers, listeners may not know what vascular disease is, it is important that explanations are clear and understandable by the general public. The interview may concern a specific topic, like stroke, or it could be a general discussion about vascular health. Whether it is about a specific topic or the broader topic of vascular disease, your talking points should address these questions:

1.  What is it?
2.  Who is affected?
3.  How do people know if they have it?
4.  What can people do to prevent it?

Knowing what to say ahead of time will help stay on track during the interview, avoid being misquoted, and deliver a better interview for the reporter. The following talking points are examples of answers to the questions above.

  1. What is vascular disease?
    Good vascular health is really a matter of life and limb. Vascular disease affects the entire body—from head to toe. It occurs when veins and arteries become clogged with plaque and cholesterol. Strokes, aneurysm ruptures, and even leg amputations can be caused by vascular disease. It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of people die annually from vascular disease.
  2. Who is affected?
    Vascular disease primarily affects people 55 years or older. Since the large population of baby boomers is reaching this age, it is important that they understand their vascular health and what they can do to stay healthy. In the case of peripheral arterial disease, African Americans, and Hispanics are particularly at risk.
  3. How do people know if they have it?
    Vascular diseases have very few symptoms prior to a stroke or aneurysm rupture. This is why people
    need to take care of their vascular health. Some people with peripheral arterial disease experience
    pain in their legs when walking. So, people 55 years old and older should talk with their primary care
    doctor about their risk factors such as high blood pressure, smoking, high cholesterol, obesity, and
    lack of exercise. Medicare beneficiaries can have a free, noninvasive vascular screening to detect vascular disease within the first six months of enrollment.
  4. What can people do to prevent it?
    The five most important steps for good vascular health are:
    1. Stop smoking
    2. Eat a healthy low fat diet
    3. Maintain good cholesterol levels
    4. Take care of blood pressure to keep it in a normal range
    5. Exercise regularly – even a moderate walking program can be effective
  5. Deliver the desired message to readers, viewers, and listeners. (See below)

The Interview is the Chance to Deliver the Message
Since the reporter only knows what is explained, the right questions may not be asked for delivery of the desired message. Good interviewees know how to take control of the interview and deliver their message.

Based upon the research conducted by SVS (See the Branding to Referring Physician Research document in the Branding Toolkit for Referring Physicians) most referring physicians do not understand the extent to which vascular surgeons are skilled at noninvasive treatments. If medical professionals do not understand, it is safe to assume the public and the media do not understand. Mention information about vascular expertise that can benefit the practice and the specialty. The following are samples of talking points that explain this expertise.

  • Vascular surgeons routinely use noninvasive and minimally invasive procedures to treat patients
  • Because of extensive training, vascular surgeons are the most skilled to prescribe the best treatment for vascular diseases
  • Vascular surgeons are the experts in providing vascular care for patients
  • Vascular surgeons offer the entire spectrum to care for vascular patients
  • Vascular surgeons have experience in all aspects of vascular care

There are techniques for answering a reporter’s questions and transitioning to the desired message for delivery. Here is an example.

Reporter: Dr. Smith, what are dangers of carotid artery disease?

Incomplete Answer: As we age, the carotid arteries in our neck can become clogged with fat and cholesterol preventing oxygen-rich blood to flow freely to the brain. The obstructions can cause carotid artery disease and lead to a stroke if left untreated.

Dr. Smith could finish talking at this point because he has answered the question. Instead, he can continue and transition to the message(s) he wants the audience to hear.

Reporter: Dr. Smith, what are dangers of carotid artery disease?

Better Answer: Carotid artery disease is a concern as we age, and a disease aging baby boomers need to be aware of. As we age, arteries in the neck can become clogged with fat and cholesterol and lead to carotid artery disease. This prevents oxygen-rich blood to flow freely to your brain. Carotid artery disease can lead to a stroke if left untreated. When detected, patients need to know that they will receive the most comprehensive diagnosis and treatment from vascular surgeons because we are the most skilled in the field. We routinely use noninvasive and minimally invasive procedures to treat patients. 

In this example, Dr. Smith transitioned to the message that patients should see a vascular surgeon for the best care and more baby boomers will be affected by carotid artery disease. The reporter did not ask him questions that would have led to that information but he was able to transition to these messages. Now the reporter has information for follow-up questions. Dr. Smith is leading the direction of the interview. The result is a richer, more newsworthy interview.
 
Note of caution: Interviews of politicians and celebrities may include questions that they simply ignore and instead deliver their own message. This approach instills a sense of distrust in the audience. It is important to always answer the reporter’s question and then deliver a message. If the question is something that should not be answered (see below) tell the reporter why and move on to delivering the message as it relates to the question.

 

Speak in Headlines
The most dynamic statement made whether it is favorable or unfavorable will probably become the quote used or the headline printed. Newspaper and online quotes can be as short as 10 to 20 words. Television and radio quotes can be only 5 to 15 seconds. Make every word count. Make the point within the first few words with supporting information following. Messages should read like a headline. In the example above, the most dynamic statement for the headline or quote would probably be, “Carotid artery disease is a concern for aging baby boomers.”

Change the Focus of a Question
Answer questions with a personal choice of words. Don’t allow an interviewer to select the words. Questions can be changed through a response.

Reporter: How often are you able to save someone with an AAA?

Negative answer: The mortality rate of AAA is very high. Most patients whose AAA ruptures die before they get to the hospital.

Better answer: I think what you are asking is whether there is anything a person can do to avoid an AAA from rupturing. Ultrasound screening for AAA is a safe, painless, effective test that determines if a person has an AAA that needs medical attention. The screenings save lives. It is unfortunate that many undiagnosed

Avoid Negative or Defensive Words
Never repeat a negative question in an answer. The negative words may appear in the quote. Here is an example:

Reporter: Why do vascular surgeons always do open surgeries instead of noninvasive procedures?

Negative answer: Vascular surgeons don’t always do open surgeries; we determine the best procedure for each patient.

Better answer: Vascular surgeons are trained in all procedures to restore good vascular health. We recommend the treatment that will produce the best results for our patients including medical management, minimally invasive endovascular angioplasty and stent procedures, and open bypass surgery. Vascular surgeons can make the best diagnosis because we are trained in all areas of vascular treatments.

In the interview example above, the wrong answer may have produced a quote with a defensive attitude,
“Vascular surgeons don’t always do open surgeries.” Instead, eliminating the negative words could
produce a positive quote, “Vascular surgeons are trained in all procedures to restore good vascular
health.”

Interviewing Tips

  • Nothing is “off the record” with the media. If you don’t want to read it, see it, or hear it, don’t say it
  • Have statistics and supportive information ready, in writing, for follow-up questions
  • Suggest topics prior to the interview. This includes the latest research or other important information. The reporter will have a better story with this information
  • Talk generally (wihtout providing names) about a dramatic case that will make an impression. Everyone likes to hear stories about other people
  • Keep the tone of the interview positive. Focus on good vascular health. When discussing vascular diseases always talk about how to prevent the disease
  • Television is a visual medium. Use models and diagrams to describe vascular conditions when giving a television interview
  • Be a good listener
  • While the interview is not a natural conversation, keep the tone conversational, not authoritative, and avoid medical jargon
  • Make your first words the most important and get to the point early on. When possible, start with a message, fill in relevant facts or anecdotes, and then repeat the message
  • Anticipate a reporter’s difficult questions and determine how to briefly answer the question and transition to prepared messages
  • When doing a telephone interview, be in a quiet setting so the reporter understands the message
  • Honesty is always the best policy. Promptly provide reporters with answers to questions, specific details or statistics 
  • Avoid giving personal opinions when representing an organization
  • Offer supportive documentation such as artwork, charts, and on-site tours to emphasize points
  • Politely disagree with statements made by the reporter or other interviewee. Don’t end an interview with the audience hearing or reading contradictory information 
  • Dress appropriately for television interviews. Wear a business suit for studio interviews and a lab coat over business attire or scrubs for an on-site interview
  • When choosing a location for television interviews, be conscious of the background. Keep the office or facility’s name/logo in the background for good news and out of the picture for bad news
  • Speak compassionately and use analysis to support the position
  • Maintain good eye contact with the reporter or other interviewees as they speak
  • Use notes for quoting figures instead of relying on memory
  • Be comfortable; sit up straight; keep eyeglasses on for television interviews
  • Be yourself; don’t try to change your style
  • Whenever possible, practice with someone prior to the interview

“No Comment”
There are questions that should not be answered but never say, “No comment.” This response makes projects guilt. It is important that the audience understands why an question won't be answered. These are situations when questions should not be answered:

  • Patient privacy
  • Answer is unknown – Offer to provide the reporter with the information by a specific time. Be sure to meet this deadline to maintain credibility with the reporter
  • Personal information – This includes questions concerning salary, political affiliation, family, religion, etc. Explain that these are personal matters unrelated to the issue
  • Competitive information – Any competitive information concerning a medical practice is not public knowledge. Simply tell the reporter what they are asking is competitive information
  • Litigation – Tell the reporter the matter is in litigation
  • Comment on others’ quotes or facts – Do not comment on another’s quote or facts without personal knowledge of the statistic or quote. Explain an inability to contact the person to confirm the statistic. Offer to reply to the reporter upon confirmation of the information
  • Iffy questions – It is best not to speculate on iffy questions such as, “If this happened, what would you do?”

Posted June 2010

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VascularWeb® is the prime source for all vascular health and disease information, and is presented by the Society for Vascular Surgery®. Its members are vascular surgeons, specialists, and vascular health professionals who are specialty-trained in all treatments for vascular disease including medical management, non-invasive procedures, and surgery.