Answers: Should PR Pros Participate During Interviews?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on July 2, 2015 – 3:04 am

Earlier this week, I asked readers whether it was appropriate for PR pros to participate during media interviews when someone else—an executive, subject matter expert, or client—is the person being interviewed.

Many of you responded (thank you!). We heard from people via Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and in the blog’s comment section, so in this post, we’ve pulled several of your comments together.

Patrick Coffee Tweets

In general, I agree with Patrick’s points. But in some circumstances—such as when a spokesperson says something factually inaccurate, is about to go off the rails, or has already said something damaging—jumping in may be the better of two lousy options.


Steve Johnson Tweet

For some interviews, it’s also okay to jump in to add something useful—some PR pros possess broader institutional knowledge than a subject matter expert, whose knowledge may be deep but narrow.


Justin Walden Tweet

Good advice. “Reading the situation” is where the value of experienced PR pros comes into play, since these are often subjective decisions that have to be made on the spot.


Stu Opperman Tweet
I agree in general, but I’d also maintain that protecting your client by jumping in may be necessary. That may be “controlling,” but also appropriate. Your point about preparing clients carefully is spot on; to the degree we can prepare them better before something goes wrong, we can reduce the risk of being put in such an uncomfortable position.


Ted Flitton Tweet

I agree. That’s one of the most persuasive arguments for sitting in.


Michael Schroeder Tweet

Again, I agree generally, but think interventions may occasionally be the better of two bad choices.


Melanie Ensign Tweet
I understand that argument, but that seems strong. Media training can’t entirely remove every bad instinct a spokesperson might have every time. We can coach to those points, reduce them, make spokespersons aware of them, etc. But a person who is quick to anger, for example, probably can’t be completely “fixed” in a single media training session. When working with such people, PR people might need to take on a babysitting function to help maintain the professionalism of the brand.


Reader Sean Mallen left his thoughts in the comments section on the blog:

“I can tell you from 30+ years as a reporter (before recently jumping to communications consulting) that having someone in the room to listen to the interview was fine by me, whether it be an in house PR person or a hired gun. And now that I’m on the other side of the divide, I recommend it. Why? Because anyone, even the most accomplished speaker who has been well-prepared can make a mistake. At the end of the interview, your colleague can advise that you mis-spoke. As a reporter, I’d have no problem in giving my interviewee an opportunity to correct a fact. However, the PR person should NEVER interrupt an interview in progress, not unless they want to make themselves the news clip.”


Sharon Navarro, who does hospital communications, added her thoughts via LinkedIn:

Sharon Navarro Comment


And Laura Creswell left the following comment on our Facebook page:

Laura Creswell Comment


Thank you all for your great comments! Come join the conversation on Twitter at @MrMediaTraining.



June 2015: The Worst Video Media Disaster

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on June 30, 2015 – 11:14 am

Joe Biden’s oldest son, Beau, died of brain cancer on May 30. It was the latest blow in a life of tragedies for the vice president, whose first wife and one-year-old daughter were killed in a car accident in 1972. 

In response to the news, politicians on the opposite side of the aisle suspended partisan attacks on Biden and expressed their sorrow. It was heartening to watch as political rivals put their humanity above their politics. 

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX)—a presidential candidate and longtime critic of Mr. Biden’s—struck the perfect tone with a beautifully crafted statement, which he released on his website three days after Beau’s death.Ted Cruz Biden Statement

If Mr. Cruz meant those words, his sentiment was short lived. At a GOP dinner the following day, Cruz decided to take a swipe at Biden and use him as a cheap punch line.

“You know the nice thing? You don’t need a punch line. I promise you, it works. The next party you’re at, just walk up to someone and say, ‘Vice President Joe Biden,’ and just close your mouth. They will crack up laughing.”

While Cruz was gleefully mocking his political opponent, Mr. Biden was preparing to bury his son. Contrast Mr. Cruz’s words with this agonizing photo of a grieving father, taken at Beau’s viewing a few days later.


Political attacks are nothing new. Candidates of both parties engage in them. And Cruz’s attack is consistent with the fact that some politicians are particularly juicy targets. Former vice presidents (or VP candidates) Al Gore, Sarah Palin, Joe Biden, and Dick Cheney all come to mind as occasional political punch lines; a simple mention of their names, uttered at the right time to the right audience, is almost certain to draw groans or laughs.

But regardless of which party you support or what ideological beliefs you hold, some things should be sacred in American public life. One of them is that politicians should place a moratorium on personal attacks during a time of profound personal grief.

That I have to write such a thing seems absurd—it’s a truth so obvious it shouldn’t have to be stated—and yet, some public figures clearly need to be reminded of it. And that Ted Cruz—a father of two young daughters—needs to be reminded of this makes him this month’s worst video media disaster.

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Question: Should PR Pros Participate During Interviews?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on June 29, 2015 – 12:02 am

One of our clients recently suggested a terrific idea for a blog post.

In his role as a PR pro, he often sets up interviews for his subject matter experts. His protocol is to be on the call to listen in on the interview (reporters know he’s on the line). His presence helps him keep his experts on point, allows him to fulfill reporter requests for follow-up items, and gives him a sense of which coworkers need a media training refresher.

During the interview, when he thinks it might be useful, he answers the occasional question or adds to something his colleague said. But he’s also aware that jumping in too much during the call can make some reporters bristle.

Here’s his question: How involved should PR pros be during interviews with reporters?

Two People Dialing Telephone iStockPhoto PPT

I asked a similar question a few years ago (that post gives a great perspective from a reporter’s point of view), but I’d like to be more precise this time by asking you the specific factors that go into your decision of whether to jump in or remain silent.

Does it depend on the nature of the story?

Does your relationship with the reporter change the equation?

Do you jump in more with less experienced spokespersons?

Do you usually hold your tongue unless the expert commits a factual error? 

Do you view yourself as a “co-interviewee” whose responses as an organizational spokesperson are as important as the answers from the subject matter expert?

Do you even care if reporters bristle as long as you’ve guided your spokesperson toward good answers and away from potentially damaging ones?

Has a reporter ever “punished” you in the resulting news coverage for interrupting the interview with the expert?

We’d both like to learn from you on this one. Please leave your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below.


The Science of Storytelling: Why Your Brain Loves Stories

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on June 24, 2015 – 5:02 am

For years, we’ve been advising our presentation training clients to incorporate storytelling into their presentations, often during the opening. We’ve consistently observed how stories captivate an audience and lead to the most memorable moments of an entire speech.

Frankly, it doesn’t take an expert to spot that. Everyone sitting in the audience sees the same thing. 

Recent research adds scientific heft to those observations. Paul J. Zak, a professor at Claremont Graduate University, studied a neurochemical called Oxytocin, which he describes as “a key ‘it’s safe to approach others signal’ in the brain.” According to a paper called “Oxytocin: The Great Facilitator of Life,” the hormone also plays a role in social attachment, maternal behavior, and orgasm (although we don’t recommend seeking that result during your presentations).

orator in public

For an article in the Harvard Business Review, Dr. Zak writes that “Oxytocin is produced when we are trusted or shown a kindness, and it motivates cooperation with others. It does this by enhancing the sense of empathy, our ability to experience others’ emotions.”

And, critically, he writes, “The amount of oxytocin released by the brain predicted how much people were willing to help others; for example, donating money to a charity associated with the narrative.”

Given the importance of oxytocin to achieving your goals, perhaps we should stop telling our trainees to “tell stories” and advise them instead to “produce more oxytocin for the audience.”

Excited Speaker

Dr. Zak offers a few specific recommendations to help speakers sharpen their storytelling:

“We discovered that, in order to motivate a desire to help others, a story must first sustain attention – a scarce resource in the brain – by developing tension during the narrative. If the story is able to create that tension then it is likely that attentive viewers/listeners will come to share the emotions of the characters in it, and after it ends, likely to continue mimicking the feelings and behaviors of those characters. This explains the feeling of dominance you have after James Bond saves the world, and your motivation to work out after watching the Spartans fight in 300.

These findings on the neurobiology of storytelling are relevant to business settings. For example, my experiments show that character-driven stories with emotional content result in a better understanding of the key points a speaker wishes to make and enable better recall of these points weeks later.”

He recommends focusing your storytelling on human aspects, not the more procedural ones:

“We know that people are substantially more motivated by their organization’s transcendent purpose (how it improves lives) than by its transactional purpose (how it sells goods and services).  Transcendent purpose is effectively communicated through stories – for example, by describing the pitiable situations of actual, named customers and how their problems were solved by your efforts.”

We’ve always known that stories are critical to speaking success. Now we have a new scientific language available to us to explain why.

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When Public Speakers Should Be Stubborn And Fight

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on June 22, 2015 – 3:02 am

Hundreds of audio/visual technicians have helped me set up our media and presentation training sessions over the past decade. These professionals have bailed me out of more than a few jams, and I value their knowledge and expertise.


I’ve consistently found that many A/V techs have a different view of what constitutes an “ideal” set up than I do. Oftentimes, they’ll set up the room in a manner that takes full advantage of the technology—but that isn’t conducive to student learning and public speaking.

As an example, a tech recently set up a room to look like the image below. But imagine one more empty table placed directly between the table with chairs and the screen, separating the speaker from the trainees by an extra few feet.

Contemporary conference room

I was dismayed when I found that set up in the room (despite making a specific A/V request in advance), because I knew it wouldn’t work well for a full day of training.

Plus, I prefer speaking from the short end of the table, where I can take in the full room at a glance, instead of from the middle of the long side of the table, which forces me to constantly rotate back and forth.

I spoke to the tech and told him I’d like to try a different set up. He told me that his set up was the one most presenters used in that room. (I’ve heard that line many times—but given that many presenters aren’t all that great, that argument doesn’t warrant any merit.) He then tried to explain that the cords wouldn’t reach long enough with my preferred option. (Fortunately, I’ve learned just enough about technology to offer a solution he hadn’t considered.)

In the end, we made a few changes that made the room look more like the photo below.


As another example, I recently walked into a training room and saw the room set with chairs like this:  

Rows of chairs

My trainees were adults, not seventh graders, and I didn’t want them to sit in grade school chairs for eight hours. We reconfigured the room with conference-style tables that fostered better collaboration and discussion.

As much as possible, it is your obligation as a speaker to create a speaking environment conducive to learning and participating.

To reduce the chances of something going wrong, you should speak to the A/V staff prior to the speaking day—but if you see something on the event day that you don’t like in the room, politely insist that the room be set the way you want it. 

Good technicians are crucial allies—but their “best practices” and yours as a speaker may not align. You are the person in the front of the room, not them, so don’t simply defer to their expertise. Listen to their ideas and consider them—but don’t automatically yield to them.

Fight for what you want. Actually, that’s not exactly right. Fight not for what you want, but for what the audience needs to optimize learning.

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The Brian Williams Today Show “Comeback” Interview

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on June 19, 2015 – 8:10 am

Brian Williams appeared with Matt Lauer on NBC’s Today Show this morning in his first interview since getting caught fabricating stories about past news events.

Although I thought it was a bad idea for Williams to be interviewed by one of his NBC colleagues—which throws into question the independence of the interview—Lauer asked many of the straightforward and tough questions any reporter should. 

Williams came across as a chastened and wounded man—not a broken one—but too often evaded questions with half-answers that didn’t go far enough.

 Brian Williams Today Show

For example, asked how he got so many stories wrong, Williams attempted to compartmentalize where his misstatements (some would say lies) occurred:

“It is clear that after work, when I got out of the building, out of that realm, I used a double standard, I changed, I was sloppy, I said things that weren’t true.”

But it was Williams’s story on NBC Nightly News—about allegedly being shot down on a chopper during the invasion of Iraq—that got him caught. That didn’t happen “after hours” on a late night comedy show, as Williams hoped we might forget—it happened on his signature broadcast. His attempt to segregate his lies solely to extracurricular interviews is inaccurate and unfortunate.

Lauer also gave Williams an opportunity to confess to his other misstatements, as NBC News has refused to make its internal investigation public. Williams again evaded the question, only saying that, “What has happened in the past has been torn apart by me and fixed.” I doubt he would take a lying politician’s word for it at that without pushing for more—but Lauer let it go and didn’t press Williams into a more forthright response.

Did Williams do enough to be able to make a comeback in his new role on MSNBC? Time—and ratings—will tell. But as chastened as Williams was—and it was clear he’s felt the impact of this ordeal—he should be making his comeback outside of NBC News, not as one of its highest profile faces of hard news.

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Is This Smart Risk Management, Discriminatory, Or Both?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on June 18, 2015 – 12:02 am

Some executives, politicians, and other high-profile figures are vulnerable to accusations of sexual harassment, sexual assault, or consensual but inappropriate sexual relations. A single accusation can be all it takes to destroy a career or irreparably harm a reputation.

Many of those charges are true, of course, but at least some are not. As a result, some bosses—mostly men—have implemented policies that forbid female staffers from being alone with them. 

Some Christian conservatives, for example—including Billy Graham, Kirk Cameron, and Rick Warren—try to avoid ever being seen alone with another woman. Warren once said that he has to “set up the parameters that keep you from even being tempted in those areas, which means for instance, I’m never alone, ever, ever, alone with a woman, or even by myself when I’m traveling.”

As a media trainer who helps clients manage risk, I understand their sentiment and why they’d want to take measures to avoid even a whiff of impropriety. But in practice, those sentiments come at a cost—mostly to women—who suffer from a lack of one-on-one access with their bosses.


Pastor Rick Warren

Pastor Rick Warren


According to The National Journal, several male members of Congress have implemented similar rules:

“It’s no secret that Congress is dominated by men, but as women work to make inroads in the congressional boys club, some female staffers face a huge impediment to moving up: They’re not allowed to spend one-on-one time with their male bosses.

In an anonymous survey of female staffers conducted by National Journal in order to gather information on the difficulties they face in a male-dominated industry, several female aides reported that they have been barred from staffing their male bosses at evening events, driving alone with their congressman or senator, or even sitting down one-on-one in his office for fear that others would get the wrong impression.”

Such practices may not only be hurting women’s careers, but may also be illegal:

“Debra S. Katz, an employment discrimination attorney in Washington for thirty years, said she’d never heard of a such a policy being employed in the private sector, but added that ‘the practices are clearly discriminatory in my view.’”

From a risk management perspective, it makes sense to minimize potential risks. But having separate policies that hurt women in the workplace is clearly wrong.

Such policies are also insufficient as inoculators. As the high-profile Mark Foley scandal showed, harassment can also be directed toward same-sex colleagues. Therefore, it seems that in order to be a truly effective risk management strategy, these politicians should never be alone with any one person, regardless of gender, and should only meet with employees or travel in groups.

And that, of course, is almost certainly impractical.

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Photo via Steve Jurvetson, Wikimedia Commons


How To Control A Dominant Audience Member

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on June 15, 2015 – 12:12 am

I recently conducted a presentation training workshop with five trainees.

After every point I made, one of the trainees—let’s call him Peter—would interject with a story, question, or opinion. At first, I welcomed his participation—his interjections were on topic and he had smart things to say. But he had far more of them than were appropriate to the format, and it quickly became clear that Peter was disrupting the flow of the session.

Worse, I watched as the other trainees started to disengage. It was easy to appreciate why they were getting the feeling that our training session was going to become a long day. 

I tried to manage the dominant participant in a variety of ways—by (politely) cutting off his comments before they were finished, using body language cues to try to slow him down, and saying that our schedule was slipping and we’d need to hold questions until the end of the current section to catch up.

Nothing worked.

Dominant Man Back to Camera iStockPhoto PPT

It would be easy to attribute Peter’s actions to his ego or desire to hear himself speak; those two reasons certainly apply in many situations. But in this case, I chalked Peter’s behavior up to a lack of self-awareness (which may be the toughest situation to manage). 

In these situations, the session leader needs to take a heavier hand. The other attendees want you to exercise your authority—and if you don’t, they may hold it against you. The key is to exercise that authority politely, if firmly, without ever disrespecting the audience member.

Option One: Shut The Questioner Down

The next time the participant begins talking again, you could jump in and say:

“I’m going to ask you to hold on for a moment, Peter, because I’d like to get a few new voices in here. What do you think, Paul?”

You can continue to do that numerous times until Peter (hopefully) gets the message, perhaps allowing him to make his point on occasion so you’re not shutting him down 100 percent of the time.

Option Two: Enlist The Participant As Your Ally

Another option I’ve used in the past is to compliment the participant during a break—but in such a manner that helps you achieve your purpose.

“You know, Peter, you’ve been great about participating in this session. I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but I’ve been having a tough time drawing out the other participants. Could you help me after the break? If we allow there to be silence in the room after I ask a question, one of them might feel compelled to speak up.” 

What tricks and techniques have you used to control the “Peters” in your audience? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.


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  • About Mr. Media Training

    The Mr. Media Training Blog offers daily tips to help readers become better media spokespersons and public speakers. It also examines how well (or poorly) public figures are communicating through the media.

    Brad Phillips is the Founder and Managing Editor of the Mr. Media Training Blog. He is the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm with offices in NYC and DC.

    Brad Phillips

    Before founding Phillips Media Relations in 2004, Brad worked as a journalist with ABC's Nightline with Ted Koppel and CNN's Reliable Sources and The Capital Gang.

    Brad tweets at @MrMediaTraining.

    Christina Mozaffari is the Senior Writer for the Mr. Media Training Blog. She is the Washington, D.C. vice president for Phillips Media Relations.

    Brad Phillips

    Before joining Phillips Media Relations in 2011, Christina worked as a journalist with NBC News, where she produced stories for MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, NBC Nightly News, and The Today Show.

    Christina tweets at @PMRChristina.

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