By Gerard Braud
The current Ebola crisis has the media calling upon their medical experts to communicate about infected patients being flown to the United States for treatment.
Media training for this type of crisis requires you to have a plan for how your doctors and physicians will respond if they are called upon to talk with reporters. Every employer needs to be prepared to follow these same rules. When talking about the health of an employee or a patient, HIPPA rules – the Federal rules that govern patient privacy — essentially prohibit a doctor or employer from talking about the patient.
Yet the media want details; details a treating physician cannot give; details the employer cannot give.
The three secrets to an intelligent interview answer that satisfies the media are to:
1) Set the context of the situation
2) Politely admonish the reporter
3) Speak in generalities
An artful answer may look like this:
“First, we need to recognize that because of Federal laws governing a patient’s privacy, I’m not allowed to give any specifics about this patient and neither should the media. In general I can say that a patient with Ebola can be safely quarantined because the virus is not transmitted by breathing in the infection, but only by contact with blood or body fluids.”
The medical experts and reporters on the network news programs have done a brilliant job of walking this fine line when being interviewed by their networks and reporters. An increasing number of reporters are more aware of HIPPA rules, but many are not, while others try to trick the spokesperson into saying something.
Here is the key: The media need a good sound bite or quote. Write a good sound bite then train the spokesperson to deliver it in a masterful way to the media.
On the NBC Today Show Monday morning, the doctor spokesperson from Emory University Hospital, where the patient is being treated, does a good job of not violating the patient’s privacy. It is an interview worth watching.
If we dissect the interview a bit further, here are a few things to note:
NBC News anchor Savannah Guthrie states in her question, “I know that you can’t say much, if anything about the patient, under your care, but let me just try. Can you confirm that he is improving this morning?”
The doctor responds by saying, “I really can’t comment on the clinical condition of the patient. That comes specifically from the request of the patient and his family.”
The answer is an okay answer that doesn’t violate HIPPA. However, to a reporter and the audience, it may seem like something important is not being said or that the spokesperson or doctor is hiding something, when in fact they are just protecting the patient. Granted, doctors are not professional spokespeople, which is why they require extra media training when talking about a crisis like this. Granted, the doctor needs to be focused on the patient and not the media, which is why regular media training with doctors, when there is no crisis, is the best way to have them ready for a future crisis.
An abrupt answer like that is known as a “block.” A “block” is more acceptable when it is combined with a “bridge” and a “hook.” The bridge allows you to bridge to an acceptable answer and then hook the reporter and viewer with new information and a quote.
A better answer would follow my guidelines above and sounds like this:
“First, we need to recognize that because of Federal laws governing a patient’s privacy, I’m not allowed to give any specifics about this patient and neither should the media. In general I can say that a patient with Ebola can be safely quarantined because the virus is not transmitted by breathing in the infection, but only by contact with blood or body fluids. While I cannot comment on the prognosis or any progress about this patient, I can say that our institution is optimistic that we have the right facilities and right physicians to treat someone with Ebola, which is why the patient has been flown here from Africa.”
Using this technique, the doctor doesn’t just block the reporter’s question, but also bridges to useable information.
In the PR department at Emory, the media trainer and the PR team are likely calling this interview a success… and they should… and it is, because the doctor walked the fine line of HIPPA. But with a slight bit more training and practice, the doctor can be taught to use the full block-bridge-hook technique, for a more polished answer.
For all of you who must media train a spokesperson, realize that you can go from good to great with just a few minor adjustments in an answer. Regular media training goes a long way to make your spokespeople great.