Published: 02/06/2005, Volume II5, No. 5958 Page 25
Claire Austin is a former communications director at University Hospital Birmingham foundation trust and is now a freelance consultant.
As in every walk of life there are good journalists and not so good journalists. Unfortunately, we have to deal with both sorts - you can't leave all media relations to your communications department, sometimes you need to speak to them as well.
The good journalists do their homework, read the relevant board papers and work out their line of questioning in advance. The bad ones do not. They turn up to interviews ill-prepared, with no clear idea of what they want or, even worse, preconceived ideas of what the story is.
Journalists should not be universally reviled or mistrusted.
They are merely doing a job, just like you are doing yours. And you can help them do a good job. They have come to you because you are an expert and they are not. Unless they are specialist health reporters they must be jacks of all trades, especially those on local newspapers who have to cover road accidents, murders, hospital closures and flower shows.
When talking to a journalist it is important that you know what they want. Who are they writing for?
Who is their target audience? How much information do they need?
What angle are they after? Do you get the feeling they will be writing something positive or negative about you?
Do not assume anything. It is vitally important that you know what deadline they are working to.
It is rare to need an immediate response. Most will give you time to respond, but unless you ask you will not know for sure. If you miss the deadline they will write their piece and just put the awful 'no-one from the trust was available to comment'.
Once you know what they need, plan what you are going to say.
Write the salient points down. Avoid jargon and explain acronyms and NHS-speak. Put the most important point first.
Most journalists will write balanced articles. But there are a few who are unwilling to listen to both sides of the argument. If a one-sided piece appears once; just put it down to bad luck and write a letter for publication putting your case across.
If it becomes a habit, consider taking it up with the editor.
If all else fails, give all your good, exclusive stories to a rival. The not-so-good journalist's editor will soon realise what is happening and act accordingly.