macdougall musings

Scientists in the Spotlight

In a matter of weeks since the global COVID-19 pandemic came to light, our heroes have shifted from athletes and Instagram influencers to health care workers, drug developers and vaccine researchers.

On Twitter, epidemiologists are having a moment. Conversation threads tagged with #epitwitter and #biotwitter are gathering larger audiences as people try to tap into these scientists’ seemingly suddenly crucial knowledge base. As different angles and theories come to light on how COVID-19 is changing the world, your company’s scientific experts might be thrown into the public eye with little time to become comfortable with the responsibility.

While public attention and media interactions might be old hat to C-suite level scientists, they are foreign territory for some behind-the-scenes experts now in high demand for interviews and Twitter “hot takes.” What’s the best way to prepare your subject matter experts (SMEs) for this new environment?

Learn the journalist,
establish interview scope

Some journalists will share their questions before the interview, others will not. Before setting up an interview, be transparent on the scope of what your SME can contribute to a conversation. Do your homework on the journalist, know their background and what areas they cover. Make sure everyone involved in the interaction from your side of the table understands that there is no guaranteed right-of-review before the article publishes.

Internalize 2-3 key messages

Establish 2-3 key messages that coherently illustrate the story of your company and science keeping in mind the journalist’s inquiry. Messages should be simple enough for your SME to internalize and explain in multiple contexts. Advise your SME to use the common “anything else?” question at the end of an interview to reiterate key messages.

It’s not all about you

Think of earned (unsponsored) media activity as part opportunity, part public service. You’re being given a potential platform to share your company’s messages, but the journalist’s story or need for background information should come first. Even if they’re unable to feature your desired angle in this story, the interview is a chance to learn more about them and what they’re interested in learning about.

Be transparent, be respectful

If you don’t know the answer to a question, say so. It’s even OK to say you don’t agree with the premise of a question. The tone in which you deliver your uncertainty or dissonance can determine whether you’ll build a successful relationship with the journalist and whether they’ll call you the next time they need context or voice in a story.

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