5 best practices for media appearances by EMS chiefs and field personnel
Seize every media request to your EMS agency as an opportunity to build relationships, trust, and goodwill
"Hi Garrett, this is James. Channel 5 wants to do an interview about that pediatric near-drowning call you ran today — can you some see me at your end of shift? They will be here waiting for you."
After reading that sentence, some of you already have sweaty palms. Doing media interviews is not something that is covered in an EMT course (but it should be!).
As a result, media relations and interviews are generally left up to an agency public information officer. While that is fine for routine media inquiries and background, there is exceptional value for the media, the public and the agency, to hear directly from your department's caregivers.
Conducting a media interview is not nearly as scary as most people assume. Here are five best practices that will help assure the interviewee, the agency and the topic come out shining!
1. Build an effective relationship with local media
For some inexplicable reason, there is a historic perception of acrimony between EMS and the media. Perhaps it’s because the media does not always portray what we do in a way we would like it portrayed (e.g., "ambulance drivers"), or maybe it’s because of the urban legend of media representatives getting in the way of patient care.
If the relationship between the EMS agency and the media is managed appropriately, the result can be astounding. EMS providers and agencies have incredible stories to tell. Heroic actions, CPR training, drowning prevention, safety messages and the role EMS providers play in the community are messages we want to get out, and they are stories the media wants to tell.
Building an effective relationship with the media does take effort. It requires a proactive effort to be available 24/7, provide media outlets timely information for newsworthy events, or accommodate requests for interview or information for a story they are working on with a tight deadline.
If you are kind to the media, generally, they will be kind to you. If you have provided them good, reliable information to help them, when YOU ask them to cover a story you would like told, it is easier to get them to cover it. That relationship becomes invaluable when it comes time for an interview.
2. Accept every print, television, radio interview request
A media interview is always the result of an interview request, which can happen one of two ways. First, solicited at your request, and second, unsolicited at their request.
When you are contacted by the media with a request for an unsolicited interview, there is generally only one correct response — YES. The unsolicited interview request means they are going to do a story that has some EMS theme, whether you participate or not. It’s always better to participate, even if it’s for damage control.
Take the scenario in which one of your units caused a crash that resulted in the death of a pedestrian. If you agree to the interview, you have the ability to express sorrow, humility, compassion and if appropriate, even to make an apology. If you refuse the request, the media will use the classic and very damaging "requests for an interview by XYZ EMS were denied", or even worse, the "no comment" line. Neither of these messages to your community is good. Even if it’s bad news, it’s always better to have the media talking with you, than about you.
3. Clarify expectations before the interview
As you are discussing the interview request with the media, it is very acceptable to ask some clarifying questions. This will help assure you know in advance what theme and topics will be discussed, and what questions the media will be asking.
If the interview is going to be episodic, at the scene of a major call or event, it is still very acceptable to determine before the mic is on what questions they plan on asking. This gives you a few minutes to prepare and make the interview more valuable.
If it’s a prearranged interview, as you are discussing this with the reporter or assignment editor, explain that you want to assure the most knowledgeable person is interviewed to help with their story. You want to provide them with the best information possible.
It is also acceptable to tell them if one of the questions they want to ask is not one you can answer. It is important to give a reason you cannot answer the question. It could be protected health information (PHI) related, about something currently under investigation, or you simply do not know the answer.
This is also a good time to remind them about the HIPAA privacy rules that might preclude sharing specific patient information. Most good media representatives are well aware of the privacy rules. They will understand and comply.
As you are arranging the interview, you can also mutually determine a setting and backdrop. For a prearranged interview, good stages are in front of an ambulance, in your communications center or in front of your headquarters. Try to avoid office or conference room settings. These are bland and do not tell the viewers that you are different. If using recording in your communications center, be sure they know that any video of the dispatch screens, or audio of PHI should be blurred or edited out. This is usually easily acceptable by the media team.
4. Set the stage for a successful media appearance
Doing an interview on the scene of a call is tricky. You have to arrange a location that is far enough away from the action to avoid an incidental capture of PHI, yet close enough that there is a suitable background for the media. Work with the reporter(s) to set this up as they have the eye for the camera.
If there are multiple media agencies on scene, either plan an area they can all gather around you if they are agreeable, or arrange to do one-on-ones in the same location. A single group recording is usually better efficiency and accuracy (your accuracy, not theirs — you may not say the same thing the same way each time).
If the scene is such that doing a group interview is not logistically feasible, but they all want some video of the scene, you have a unique opportunity. Let the media reps on scene know that you are willing to escort one camera crew into the scene, but they will have to agree to share the footage with the rest of the outlets. Then, have them decide who is going with you — you should not decide lest you be accused of playing favorites.
5. Give your best performance
This is it! You are being wired to the mic and the lights are on. The stage is set and you have rehearsed your responses to the questions to be asked. Here are some hints for the actual interview:
Look professional: Uniforms look really good on camera. If the interviewee is not normally in uniform, don’t have them wear one for the interview. Attire with your agency’s logo is also acceptable and desirable.
Be mindful of pens in the pocket or glasses that reflect light. Remove both if possible.
White shirts or shirts with thin, alternating color stripes are problematic for cameras. This is why you hardly ever see reporters wearing these colors. Blue is almost always preferable as it is a camera-friendly color.
Turn off radios and phones: Be sure to turn off your smartphone and portable radio. The airwaves are full of things you do not want broadcast as part of a media interview. I learned this lesson the hard way while being interviewed live. A co-responder announced through my lapel speaker, "forward triage to command, we found two more DOAs on the 2nd floor." Ugh.
Look at the reporter and ignore the camera: Reporters will generally stand to one side of the camera and tell you to look at them, not the camera. Something about interviewees looking directly at the viewing audience is apparently creepy. There is an exception to this rule — when you are doing a live interview from a remote location with news anchors or reporters in a studio. In these cases, looking into the camera is acceptable because they interviewer is inside the camera.
Be brief: Your answers to questions should be delivered in one breath. That means, if you have to stop talking to take a breath, you should stop talking.
There are two problems with long-winded responses. One, it makes it virtually impossible for the reporter to get a good sound bite from you. Two, you will go down a rabbit hole that is hard to get out of and end up saying something you should not have.
Repeat the question in your answer: Reporters will LOVE you if you incorporate their question into your answer. This allows them to take the sound bite they are looking for without having to dub in their question to make it understandable for the viewer or listener.
Here’s an example:
Reporter: "How many people were involved in the crash and what are their conditions?"
Your bad answer: "4, really bad!"
Your better answer: "XYZ EMS personnel treated 4 patients from this crash, 2 patients had critical injuries and 2 patients had serious injuries."
Answer the question you want to answer: Reporters might not know a lot about EMS, or ask a question you do not want to answer, although if you follow the advice in this article, that should never happen. If this happens, rephrase their question in the answer you give into the question you want to answer.
Here’s an example:
Reporter: "Your employee crashed the ambulance and hurt someone — what kind of a screening process do you have to make sure your employees are safe behind the wheel?"
You: "As part of the applicant screening process, we do motor vehicle license checks and we put all new employees through a rigorous driving training program."
If the reporter tries to ask the question in different ways, don’t get angry, just keep repeating the exact same answer.
Request a do-over: If one of the answers you provided did not come out the way you wanted, it’s very acceptable to ask for a do-over. Reporters will be very accommodating.
Obviously, there is no do-over for a live-broadcast interview, so live-broadcast interviews should be handled by someone who is accustomed to being interviewed.
Wrap-up: At the end of most interviews, good reporters will say something like, "is there something I have not asked you that would like to add?" Take advantage of this and be honest. If there is, tell them. They will always add that question and allow you to answer it. It also helps build the relationship by helping the reporter with aspects of the story they may not be aware of.
Mind your manners: Always, always be courteous. It is never acceptable to argue with the reporter. You will say something you did not want to say and it will end up on the 6 o'clock news. At the end of the interview, thank the reporter, even if they were confrontational, argumentative or mean-spirited.
If you can, send them an email to thank them as well. And watch the story. If it’s good, email the reporter and congratulate them on a job well done.
There was a great headline that landed in my inbox recently. It said something to the effect "Forget about hiring a good chief, hire an outstanding spokesperson."
Effective community relations are the golden egg of EMS. It’s amazing how you can build community trust with the right strategy, including the right media strategy. The media is an invaluable asset for your agency and you can be a valuable asset to them. If you are successful, your agency will shine, your employees will be happier, and, if you’re lucky, when something bad happens with your agency, you may even get a pass.
This article, originally published in November 2015, has been updated.