Should PR Professionals Sit In On Interviews?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 9, 2013 – 6:02 AM

A PR professional once shared a memorable anecdote with me. She had arranged for one of her colleagues, a content matter expert, to speak with a reporter from The Washington Post. On the day of the interview, the two of them huddled in an office and called the reporter.

They chose not to tell the reporter that the PR professional was on the line. At some point during the interview, the reporter picked up that someone else was in the room—and he exploded: “Who else is on the line? My interview is supposed to be with [NAME]. Get that other person out of the room!”

I thought of that story recently when a Sports Illustrated writer named Richard Deitsch sent his followers the following tweet:

 

Some of the journalists who responded didn’t seem to mind very much:

 

But others clearly resented the intrusion:

 

In general, I think it’s a reasonable practice for PR professionals to sit in on an interview. They often serve as a useful resource who can gather any necessary follow-up information for the reporter, clarify points the principal mistakenly gets wrong, and enforce the pre-established interview ground rules. That said, I generally believe it’s best to disclose the presence of another person to the reporter.

What do you think? Do you side with the reporters who viewed the presence of PR professionals as acceptable, or with those that regarded it as a nuisance? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below. 

h/t: Jim Romenesko

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Comments (12)

  1. By John Fitzpatrick, Stratacomm:

    Good post, Brad. There are of course many variables and no absolutes, but generally speaking, yes, PR people should sit in on media interviews. A few caveats:

    Always disclose your presence. It’s the right thing to do but also the smart thing to do since, if you are on speaker phone, the reporter will assume others are in the room and you look suspect for not disclosing. If a reporter does not like a PR person sitting in (most won’t care) , too bad; you get to set the ground rules. Moreover, your job is not to make the reporter “happy,” it’s to help your spokesperson deliver the message, avoid mistakes and debrief after for specific follow up on that issue and to evaluate ways to improve interview skills overall if appropriate. That said, PR rep should attempt to stay silent and invisible as the interview unfolds – you are not the one being interviewed and you should not look like you are spinning/protecting. There may be cases where you might quickly insert a comment or prod your spokesperson, but that should be rare and reserved for cases where things are totally off the rails or where a critical point gets missed or stated incorrectly by your spokesperson. In that case, you can say something like, “before we wrap up, John/Jane, maybe you should expand on issue x” or you can say, “ let me clarity a point of fact on issue x that John/Jane just mentioned.” Finally, having the PR rep sit-in also allows them to say “Ok, we’ve got time for about one last question as we need to wrap up here for our next meeting.” If needed, this is a good way to bring a bad interview – or one that is going way too long and potentially way off message or too deep in the weeds– to a faster conclusion to mitigate further damage.

    Put another way, Brad, you are an attorney and I know you would never let your client get deposed by opposing counsel without you also being present! The same SOP should apply with media interviews.

  2. By Brad Phillips:

    John,

    Terrific points – thank you very much for adding all of that expertise to the comments section! (If readers haven’t seen John’s great guest post, you can read it here: http://www.mrmediatraining.com/2012/02/24/what-ive-learned-as-a-spokesperson-john-fitzpatrick/.)

    Your comment also triggered another thought for me. Often at the end of an interview, a reporter will ask the spokesperson whether there’s anything else they’d like to add. That’s a perfect moment for the spokesperson to ask their PR person whether they forgot any important points. I’ve never seen a reporter object to that.

    Happy New Year!
    Brad

  3. By Roger Phelps:

    Brad; excellent post and very timely. Have an upcoming interview with WSJ and our president. In general we always sit in on these interviews, ensure that we inform the interviewer that we are there, and in general keep quiet. We are there to provide a record of the interview, information support for our president, but we also know that he is the reason the call came in. Good to know that most media folks don’t mind.

  4. By Brad Phillips:

    Thanks for your comment, Roger. When I’m working with a client, I usually prefer to sit in (or call in) for the same reasons you enumerated here.

    With the exception of PR pros who intervene in interviews at inappropriate moments, I’m surprised any reporters object. But although they’re a minority, it’s still good to go into interviews with the knowledge that you might be dealing with one of them.

    Best wishes,
    Brad

  5. By Ted Flitton:

    Hi Brad

    Great column as always. I always sit in on interviews all the time and it has nothing to do with not trusting the reporters; most times, they are fantastic, fair and get it right. The problem often lies with my own colleagues.

    Thankfully, where I work now, people get it. But in past jobs and in my role as an occasional consultant, I can’t count the number of times an interviewee didn’t take my advice to meet the reporter’s need for plain language, quick responses, stories, anecdotes, comparisons, etc. My colleagues would give long-winded, jargon-filled answers, not answer questions directly and generally perform badly, then turn around and blame the reporter when they didn’t like the finished product. They’d routinely tell me the reporter did a hatchet job – by “hatchet job” they meant they didn’t like the quotes the reporter used, although they were perfectly good, just not the speaker’s preference. Reporters were accused of putting words in peoples’ mouths. I’d point out that I was there and heard every word said – the reporter got it right and that as a former member of the media, I’d have written the story the same way.

    I found being present for media interviews allowed me to defend the reporter privately and therefore maintain good relations with the media.

    The challenge with this is that few believed my motivations. Some reporters understood that they weren’t the focus of my thoughts, but not all, while my colleagues could not accept that they needed help with interviewing.

    I think key here is as much as possible, try to show the reporter that it’s not always about them, it’s often about our own. From that, you really need to back that up with being open and transparent as much as possible.

  6. By Brad Phillips:

    Ted,

    What a great comment! You’re spot on, and I can relate to the experience of a lousy spokesperson blaming the “unfair” reporter for an imperfect story.

    I think you really hit the nail on the head with the word “motivation.” That word, more than any other, seems be the key to answering this question. If reporters sense that you’re there to help instead of hinder, I suspect most of them wouldn’t mind your presence.

    Thanks for the smart thinking and for taking the time to comment.

    Be well,
    Brad

  7. By Andy:

    I suppose interviews with Govt officials are different with athletes, but as a DoD-trained public affairs officer, I expect to be present, and most likely my boss will demand that i be present. One of my roles is to critique the boss later on his delivery, content, etc. Another is to provide the reporter with deeper info on subjects that my boss touches on, especially if his comments were factually flawed. The comment was made above, “With the exception of PR pros who intervene in interviews at inappropriate moments . . .”. It may be an ‘inappropriate moment’ for the reporter, but I don’t care. I’m sure he’d love to hear what my Subject Matter Expert is about to say, but if my SME isn’t supposed to say it, then I’m not going to let him. Or at least I’m going to fix it. I have to wonder if reporters who don’t want the PR folks in the room are hoping for a ‘gotcha’ quote. If you want factual information, you shouldn’t be worried about who is providing it.

  8. By Brad Phillips:

    Andy,

    Thanks very much for your comment. Regarding “inappropriate moments,” I suppose I should clarify what I meant.

    There are times when an intrusion by a PR professional will make it into a news story, creating a bigger problem for the organization or interviewee. The classic example of that is when an ambitious aide to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell tried to prematurely end an interview with NBC’s Tim Russert. The intrusion created a big distraction and major headlines – and it was completely unnecessary, given Mr. Powell’s interviewing prowess.

    Here’s the YouTube clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kMAguqSeRrE

    Thanks again,
    Brad

  9. By Ellie Shuster:

    I’ve worked as press secretary and with media in PR for 30 years and have yet to have a journalist take exception to my presence in an interview. I believe my job is to help both journalist and spokesperson achieve the most effective story possible.

    My most baffling experience: after doing a comprehensive technical briefing for the media with department officials followed by a good media conference with the minister, all six news outlets reported different stories and only one got it right. We all wondered what media conference they had attended!

    My most frustrating experience: a great media conference with excellent spokesmanship on a very sensitive issue resulted in a positive front page story in the local paper. The headline was controversial/negative and didn’t reflect the story at all. As the government PR person, I got called onto the carpet for the headline, although the story itself helped to diffuse the tension in the community. The Minister couldn’t understand that the headlines are written by headline-writers, and the reporters have no say.

    Sometimes you can’t win for trying!

  10. By Brad Phillips:

    Ellie,

    Thank you for sharing your personal anecdotes!

    Regarding your most frustrating experience, you’re right – that’s a tough one. Few media novices understand that the reporter and headline writer are often two separate people with different needs (one wants a good story, the other wants as many eyeballs on it as possible). In moments like that, I often tell people that the only way to retain 100 percent control is to write their own press release, but that a media story written by a neutral third party that’s only “mostly” accurate will still do more good, since the public will perceive that story as more credible.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment, and please don’t be a stranger.

    Best wishes,
    Brad

  11. By Rich Klein:

    Here’s are my thoughts in conversation last night with Brad Phillips:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b7F9vbYgjLE

  12. By Kelly French:

    I try to sit in when possible – as the pr person, I can start making notes of items to follow-up with, clarify points if I feel our interviewee isn’t clear and do what I can to make sure everyone is comfortable – is the room too warm, too cold, bottled water…. 90% of the time, I’m in the shadows and nearly forgotten…which is how is should be if everyone is well prepared for the interview.

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