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Preventing foot in mouth: what can you learn from media training?

After I spoke at the LMCs conference last summer I was contacted by several journalists but each time I received an e-mail, or a message was left with my reception staff, my heart started beating faster, I came up in a cold sweat and I thought: 'Agh, what do they want?'

This stemmed from an anxiety around the prospect of a journalist printing modified comments, or me 'saying the wrong thing', both of which would  put my personal and professional reputation being put at risk. As a young GP just starting out in my career, I didn’t want to be exposed to such a situation, and so I point-blank refused to engage with them.

However, my attitude was not realistic given my multiple roles. I’m a GP partner, as well as Hertfordshire LMC's rep, and I also sit on my locality CCG board.

I am also an Officer for the Medical Women’s Federation, which frequently receives press enquiries about issues affecting women doctors; ironically, my main role is editor of its magazine, Medical Woman.

So really, this wasn’t something I could get away with.

But I’m pleased to say I have finally conquered my fear. How? I recently attended a BMA organised media training course.

Many of us will not have to face the media during our careers. However, we live in a world where news travels very fast. A sensational story involving health could mean any doctor in a position where, to limit damage, they have to act quickly - and inexperience, coupled with a fear of making mistakes, can make this difficult.

It’s not all negative though; we mustn’t presume that all press attention is bad. Health messages can be communicated quickly and effected - vital in situations like the swine flu pandemic, and the current measles outbreak that we are seeing unfold.

I undertook training with one other GP who is also at the start of his career - he's a secretary for his LMC. After a briefing session, we each had to complete a recorded mock radio interview and then a mock TV interview, then listen and watch ourselves, and be critiqued.

Yes, it felt rather cringe. The short segment that was filmed of me reminded me I must get my hair blow dried beforehand if I’m ever to appear on TV (not something I aspire to, I must add).

That said, I felt I learned a lot from the session.

Media training reminded me of my secondary school motto: sperate parati ('go forward with preparation'). Before agreeing on any interview find out what the interview is about, what will be covered and basic logistical information such as where and when the interview will be, live/recorded, duration etc. If necessary, ring the journalist back if you want to double check any facts or find out a bit more. Once you have agreed to the interview, decide on three key points you want to cover and concentrate on these. To get your message across don’t be afraid to repeat these points.

I also learned, nothing is ever 'off the record'. I must have been completely naïve to think something could be, but be prepared that any communication you have with journalists could feature in the final message - or, at worst, be splashed all over the front page of a tabloid.

If at the end of the interview you aren’t clear about what you have said (and it’s amazing how adrenaline affects us), ask the reporter to read back what he or she plans to use. If there are inaccuracies or the journalist hasn’t understood what you are trying to say you can always ask to rephrase something.

My course colleague and I both agreed that media training was quite fun in the end. We learnt a huge amount in a short space of time, as well as increased our confidence in dealing with the media. Importantly, I hope that what I learnt during the course will help me prevent myself from being in a situation in future where I put my foot in my mouth.

Dr Sara Khan is a GP in Hertfordshire and edits the MWF’s magazine, Medical Woman. She is also involved in her local CCG and LMC. You can tweet her @DrSaraK