On the 5th of September 2016, news broke of a study which showed that taking Vitamin D supplements in addition to asthma medication cuts the risk of severe asthma attacks and the number of people needing steroid treatment. BBC World News contacted the Society for Endocrinology for expert comment on the story – here Honorary Associate Professor at the University of Warwick Rosemary Bland describes what she learned from the experience and leaves her top tips for dealing with the media.
My Tuesday started off pretty normally. It was around 10.30 in the morning and I had just returned from B&Q with a car full of compost and wood when my mobile rang. It was the press office at the Society for Endocrinology, wanting to know if I could do an interview for the BBC.
“Phone or radio?” I asked.
“Live TV,” they responded.
My instant reaction was to try and get out of it, thinking about my appearance as I was decorating the house. I gave some names for other experts in the field but I‘d barely had time to consider my lucky escape when a BBC producer rang. I guess they couldn’t contact my scapegoat!
It was exactly 10.41AM and I was asked if I could make it down to the London studio for 12.15PM. This is where the speedy nature of journalism and my first lesson really sunk in – what would be a stressful, logistical nightmare for most is just a regular request from the BBC.
London was out of the question. Luckily, Coventry has a BBC studio and a taxi was booked to pick me up at 11.45. The producer asked me a few questions to give the interviewer some background on the subject and she asked who I was and what I did so they could introduce me. Easy enough? Actually I found it difficult to decide.
I know a lot about vitamin D, but what did I know about this asthma study? Not much more than I’d seen on breakfast TV that morning. After a quick Google, I found all 71 pages of it. Here was the second lesson: you will not have time to do any homework in detail.
After absorbing what I could, I began to think about how the only thing I had to sort out now was myself (no hair and makeup in regional studios). However, remember the quote from Alien “in space, no one can hear you scream” well when on BBC World News ‘no one in the UK can see you’, so that was strangely comforting.
The third lesson was on how to dress. The microphone clips on, but the wires go inside your clothes. A blouse was easy; a dress would have been more difficult. In regional studios the camera only grabs your head and shoulders, so shoes don’t matter, but the white blouse was too pale (I’m wearing a coloured top next time). The cameraman kept in touch with London, but it’s weird not being able to see the interviewer. Try not to glance at yourself on the adjacent TV – it doesn’t help.
The next thing I knew, Philippa Thomas in London was introducing me to the hundreds of millions of viewers watching BBC World News around the world.
Like a politician might do, I had thought of three main points I wanted to get across, so I found myself answering her questions that way. Is that a good idea? I don’t know, but it gave me something to focus on and I found that helpful. Here is one of the most important lessons – think about what you want to say, don’t rely on the interviewer’s questions. This is especially important for public health messages where caution needs to be urged. Just try and remember that you are the expert. As it was World News, I also had to remember not to be UK specific – so not ‘the NHS’, but ‘health services’.
Whether it was the producer (get a phone number for your BBC contact just in case and text them afterwards to ask for the clip), Coventry staff, or the VERY calm man in London who talked into my ear, everyone at the BBC was efficient and helpful. Remember that they do this every day, and so if they have forgotten the little things that might be worrying you; just ask.
When I rang the press office to tell them I was doing it they asked if I was excited. At the time it didn’t feel like it, but after it was all over I think I was. Would I do it again? Probably, but I hope I get the call when I’m not decorating.