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What we can learn from a TV interview by the woman leading the search for a coronavirus vaccine
April 22, 2020

The woman doing the most important job in Britain right now delivered an excellent media interview last week.

Professor Sarah Gilbert, a vaccinologist at Oxford University, is leading the research in the UK to find an effective vaccine for the coronavirus.  As a journalist who’s interviewed scores of doctors and scientists and as a media trainer who has worked with many of them in media training courses to clarify their messages and make them understandable and relevant to non-scientific audiences, I was very impressed.

What was it about Professor Gilbert’s interview with Andrew Marr that was so good?  And what can other interviewees and corporate communications professionals learn from it?

Her answers were the right length as well as being concise and clear. She answered the questions – politicians and business leaders, take note.  Each one made a particular point and did so unambiguously.  She managed to explain the science and the research procedures in a way that was easy to understand for Marr’s general audience.  She was also skilful in avoiding his inevitable search for a simple headline – good or bad – that would not have worked for her.

As I often say, journalists, well, some of us anyway, tend to see every new drug or medical finding as either a cure for cancer or being a raging killer. Explaining the nuances and managing the message is often tricky.

Marr wasn’t quite as extreme as this but he dived in with a typically excitable, simplistic, headline grabbing journalist’s question: can a vaccine by September be guaranteed?  Professor Gilbert immediately dampened down this suggestion but then went on to give her own, measured prediction: “The prospects are very good.”

Still undeterred Marr tried again: “When will it be ready?”  In fairness to him, he was only putting to her the question in simple, blunt terms that his audience would want him to pose. We stress in our media training courses that the journalist is only asking the questions that their audience will be asking.

Here Professor Gilbert did well in that instead of dismissing what many scientists would regard as an attempt to dumb down their methodical, evidence based, carefully managed and highly regulated work, she unpacked the question.  “It depends what you mean by ‘ready’,” she explained.  She followed up with some clear, understandable examples of what the process towards this readiness involves, stage by stage, complete with simple, everyday examples.  She reminded us, for instance, of some of the side effects of having a vaccine injected, “such as a sore arm”.

It was a description that included momentum and energy, as we would hope, but managed expectations by clearly outlining the many hurdles that need to be cleared and tests that must be passed before manufacturing can start.  Although it was cautious, it was full of examples of action, such as recruiting volunteers and checking their health status.

Marr had another go: it seems that a vaccine will only be available at the end of the year, he suggested.  And, again, Professor Gilbert manages to mix action and optimism with caution.

She included a clear call to action during the interview: “What we need from government is support to help accelerate the manufacturing,” she said, before going on to explain clearly what she needs the big pharmaceutical manufacturers to do.

Who owns the vaccine, asked Marr. It’s the kind of question that is perfectly logical but slightly left field and can easily throw someone during a media interview.  Instead of dodging it, Professor Gilbert sticks to her brief: “What we’re concentrating on is having the vaccine ready for public health use,” she explains.  When Marr tries again, asking about the need to make the vaccine for the world and the importance of providing fair access to it, she repeats her message.  But to avoid sounding like a patronising automaton, she uses slightly different wording: “What we’re concentrating on is getting the vaccine available.”

Marr asks more about distribution, price and public health policy, issues that aren’t particularly relevant to Professor Gilbert.  She doesn’t dodge these questions but talks around them so that she is interesting and informative and then moves back to what she can say as a researcher: “We’re concentrating on the clinical trials.”

There are good, clear explanations about some of the particular aspects of this virus and why older people, especially men, are more likely to suffer from it. This exchange was a great example of an inquisitorial media interview (“tell me something that my audience didn’t know and that they might find useful and interesting”) rather than the much more common accusatorial variety (“why don’t you just admit that you’re a lying, incompetent idiot?”).

Generally, Professor Gilbert spoke at the right pace with the kind of energy that works well in broadcast interviews – especially those carried out virtually as so many are these days.  Her language was simple and lacked the kind of clinical jargon that disillusions so many general audiences. Yes, I can work out what “clinical outcomes” means but you’ve lost me because you’re literally not speaking my language.

Professor Gilbert’s dress is neat, conservative and business like as we’d hope and expect from someone doing such vital work. She maintains a steady eyeline with the camera and she’s looking straight at it rather than down onto it. This is a point we make strongly during our media training courses, especially at the moment when so many TV interviews are being carried out on computers, tablets and phones.

She gave a lovely little sign off at the end of the interview: “Right, I’ll get back to work.”  I particularly liked Andrew Marr’s conclusion as well: “Professors do give you very clear answers sometimes,” he said, obviously impressed.

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