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Patient Notification Toolkit

Section 2: Planning Media and Communication Strategies

Spokesperson Preparation

The following resources will help guide media and communication strategies. Note that some of these are intended for novice communications professionals.

Designate your Spokesperson Early!

The role of a spokesperson is to communicate information the public wants or needs. The spokesperson is not only responsible for the messages being conveyed, but he or she should also be involved in the development of the key messages.

Principles of Effective Risk Communication

  • Don’t over-reassure
  • Acknowledge uncertainty
  • Emphasize that a process is in place to learn more
  • Give anticipatory guidance (e.g., “It is possible we may see more cases as we begin to test more patients”)
  • Acknowledge people’s fears
  • Acknowledge what may have caused harm
  • Be empathetic and even apologetic
  • Express wishes (e.g. “I wish our answers were more definitive.”)
  • Be willing to address the “what if” questions

What Makes a Good Spokesperson?

Every organization has an identity and a spokesperson should try to embody that identity. A spokesperson must be perceived as trustworthy, credible, compassionate, and empathetic. These qualities are built on expressions of competence and expertise, honesty and forthrightness, and commitment and dedication.

General Recommendations for Spokespersons in All Settings

  • Be compassionate, empathetic, and trustworthy.
  • Know your organization’s policies about the release of information.
  • Stay within the scope of your responsibilities, unless told otherwise.
  • Don’t answer questions that are not within the scope of your organizational responsibility; defer to other organizations when appropriate. For example, define in advance what elements the facility spokesperson will address and what will be deferred to the health department.
  • Tell the truth. Be as open as possible.
  • Offer to follow up on questions and other issues that cannot be addressed at the time they are asked.
  • Use visuals (e.g., timelines, charts, lists) when possible.
  • Illustrate points with examples, stories, and analogies.
  • Avoid jargon; it complicates communication and implies arrogance.
  • Do not use humor. Allow your statements, delivered with confidence, to defuse tension.
  • When possible, use positive or neutral terms.
  • Discuss what you know, not what you think.

What Spokespersons Should Know When Talking to Media

As a spokesperson, you should go into any media interview with a purpose. Have a message to deliver. Make sure the reporter gets your name and title correct. Keep your title as short and as descriptive as possible.

General Media Interview Approach

  • Know the main point you want to make before the interview begins.
  • Don’t let a reporter put words in your mouth. Answer the question in your own words.
  • If the question contains leading or loaded language, reframe the question and then answer.
  • Don’t assume the reporter understands the situation fully. Be prepared to repeat answers.
  • There is no such thing as “off the record.”
  • Anticipate questions and have your facts ready.
  • Make your point before taking questions.
  • Don’t fake knowledge or expertise; if you don’t know something, say so, and convey that you will follow up to obtain the information.
  • Break down multiple-part questions.
  • Speak in short sentences.
  • Don’t raise issues that are beyond the scope of your message.
  • Don’t say “no comment”; instead, acknowledge that you either do not know the answer or that more investigation needs to be done before you can answer fully.

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