When You Should Turn Down A Media Interview

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on December 27, 2010 – 6:48 AM

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ve seen my regular advice to do almost every media interview you’re offered. But there are times when turning down an interview makes the most sense, and this article will discuss the times when saying “no” is your best move.

Below, you’ll find a list of seven times to turn down an interview.

The original list comes from the IABC (The International Association of Business Communicators). Although it’s a solid list, the tips are overly-generalized, so I’ve added my own commentary to each of the seven suggestions to help make them more complete.

1. Employees Have Not Yet Been Notified About a Specific Issue

As a general piece of advice, this is fine. But if a reporter is about to run a story with or without your input – and if you lack the logistical ability to inform your employees directly before it runs – it might make sense to participate in the story to ensure you provide the necessary context. Plus, what is the “specific issue” at play here? Announcing a new product before all employees have been notified (e.g. the iPad) might be strategically sound, while announcing employee layoffs through the press would not be.

2. Employee, Client or Patient Privacy Is Never Breached For Any Reason

Client confidentiality might be waived, for example, if you’re subpoenaed to testify in a lawsuit or before Congress, especially if no confidentiality agreement was signed between the parties.

3. A Disaster or Emergency Has Occurred and Next-of-Kin Have Not Been Notified

I agree you should not be the first party to announce any deaths before next-of-kin has been notified, but what happens if the media has already announced the names? Do you confirm them then, or continue to wait hours – or days – before next-of-kin has been notified? These cases aren’t always cut and dried, and sometimes confirming the names is the more humane choice.

4. Sensitive Competitive Information Would Be Divulged

In a reputational crisis, there are times you might lose more by NOT divulging a proprietary piece of information. As with any crisis, you have to analyze all possibilities, including divulging competitive information.

5. Security Legislation Would Be Breached

Whistleblowers aside, this is probably good advice. I assume this refers to laws already passed, not pending legislation.

6. Union Negotiations are Underway and an Information Blackout is in Effect

If both sides are honoring the agreement, this is good advice. But what about when one party breaks the agreement and is killing you in the press? You should talk to the media – if not to offer specifics, at least to remind the public that you’ve agreed to an information blackout, that you’re not going to talk for that reason, but that there’s more to the story than they’re hearing from the other side. 

7. Legal Counsel Has Advised Against Communications

If there’s one thing on this list that makes me bristle, it’s this one. First, even if counsel has advised against “communications,” you can still communicate. You can almost always offer a generic statement such as, “We can’t offer specifics in this case since it’s in litigation, but I would like to remind everyone that there are two sides to this story, and we’re confident that our side will come out in court.”

Second, legal counsel often advises against communications as a kneejerk reaction, even when communicating makes the most sense. Executives would be wise to consult their attorneys and their communications professionals prior to making such decisions. Sometimes the reputational damage caused by your silence is greater than the financial damage of future lawsuits.

Editor’s Note: A grateful hat tip to a good marketing blog called IMC Intuition by Beth Ryan, on which I originally saw this list.

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Comments (8)

  1. By Leila:

    Great list! I’d also add that, if you aren’t properly media trained, you shouldn’t take an interview where the reporter is known for ambush or exposé style stories.
    Time and time again I see footage of people who thought it was ‘just an interview’ and suddenly they’re in way over their head.

  2. By Brad Phillips:

    Leila – thanks for adding that comment! I agree with your additition to the list: If stopped unexpectedly, the spokesperson should simply stop, tell the reporter he/she would be delighted to arrange an interview with them, and then calmly walk toward their destination.

  3. By Mark | Clever PR:

    Excellent post. I agree that turning down the opportunity to get media coverage should never be taken lightly but there are some occasions when it’s necessary.

    I have written a post over at my blog on the subject which your readers will hopefully find useful: http://www.cleverpr.info/public-relations/when-should-you-turn-publicity-down/

  4. By Michelle Damico:

    Brad, I think it’s also worth mentioning that it’s OK to do the interview on your terms. Often, reporters will insist that they have to do the interview NOW because they’re on deadline. If the client hasn’t had time to prepare, the results could be a disaster.

    Don’t feel rushed. If the reporter gives you a deadline, respond by saying you want to help him/her out, but need more time (insert any valid excuse for the delay).

  5. By Brad Phillips:


    I completely agree. In almost every circumstance, it’s a good idea to take at least half an hour to develop your messages before conducting the “official” interview.

    I addressed something similar to this in a recent article, which can be found here: http://www.mrmediatraining.com/index.php/2010/08/25/whats-your-deadline/.

    Thanks for leaving a comment behind! It’s always good to hear from you.

    Best wishes,

  6. By MJen:

    Brad, what are your thoughts on reporters or press that are consistently negative in their coverage? When it seems as though they have an angle or agenda already to a story…and when asking for another interview I am really not going to help them bash us again, just so it seems as though they are trying to cover both sides of their article. Would also love to hear how you would word turning down a reporter as well.

  7. By Brad Phillips:

    MJen – That’s a great question, and it deserves a thoughtful answer. I’ll plan to use your email as the basis for a new article on the blog, and will try to get it written and posted by the end of next week. Plus, I’ll open it up to other readers to ask for their thoughts.

    Thanks for the question. I hope you enjoy the article when it’s published!

    Best wishes,

  8. By MJen:

    Thanks Brad. I recently had interviews and provided information twice to reporters from a local newspaper and only for the story to be quite negative in both instances (obviously they left out positive information and anything they mentioned positive was backhanded at best), and we had to do some damage control internally. They recently came back and asked for more information because they want to do another story and I inquired what their story was going to be about and their deadlines. After hearing from them I politely declined to participate in their story, and simply stated based on the history of recent articles we do not want to participate in stories that clearly have an angle and are one sided.

    I realize that this does not foster any good relations with this media organization and it also may appear that the organization is hiding something when an article is published… but I also have to answer to those above me who would question why would we be a part of stories that are out to ruin our reputation? As PR professionals we provide access, information and go out of our way to cater to the media…in hopes that they will report positive stories. I am not naive to know that negative stories will come from time to time, but there is a difference in reporting a story that fits into an angle that is designed to sell newspapers at our expense and stories that try to treat subjects fairly.

    In addition…I did a one sentence explanation to the reporter because I think it was better to be simple and direct as opposed to a detailed explanation. Just my opinion. Look forward to reading your next post.

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