I remember the first time I sat in on a media interview with a client. I spent a good day or two writing down potential points I could pepper into the meeting to avoid being the green PR professional who sat smiling nervously and feverishly taking notes (believe me, I had pages of them).
I had two competing worries. First, I had to impress my client or he’d surely complain to my VP. Second, and more palpable, was my worry that the reporter (a senior editor at Network World) would smell the naivete seeping out of my pores. I imagined his disinterested, sideways glance as he discounted my point before I finished talking. Just thinking about it, I could feel the heat of embarrassment rising up my neck.
The presence of PR people during media interviews is just one item on a long list of common media complaints, and it’s often surpassed in priority by untailored, blasted e-mail pitches. Last month, though, the issue made headlines when a PR pro for the New York Jets told Darrelle Revis to hang up on host Mike Francesa during a heated WFAN interview. Hanging up mid-interview is almost always a bad idea. The bigger question, though, is this: Should PR professionals sit in on press calls?
The answer to this question lies in your spokesperson’s capabilities and confidence (it also assumes a high level of competence on the part of the PR practitioner). Let’s say that the interview is expected to be positive, your spokeswoman knows her talking points cold, charms everyone she meets and enjoys developing media relationships. Set her free. She does not need a babysitter. This may not be a popular point of view around PR people: It requires a leap of faith, but if you can live with a bit of uncertainty, it might just get you better coverage more often. Here’s why:
Transparency. The presence of a PR pro implies the potential for questions that stray into undesirable topics. It puts a reporter on guard. Marketers have embraced engagement marketing and content marketing as paths toward more meaningful and long-term relationships with customers, prospects, investors and many other audiences. These channels have been built on transparency, honesty and one-to-one conversations. Often, PR is the driving force behind these types of social campaigns, and this approach should spill over into the more traditional media relations programs. Letting a spokesperson go solo says, “I’ve got nothing to hide” and “I’m going to give it to you straight.”
Relationships. While PR professionals must build great relationships with the media, it is also our job to facilitate relationships on behalf of our clients. It’s a good thing when a reporter calls a spokesperson directly once that relationship is formed. That is proof we’ve done our job. However, it’s tough to form good relationships with a PR pro monitoring every word. Imagine trying to go on a first date with a dating expert sitting next to you critiquing every gesture and word. One-on-one conversations foster relationships, and great media coverage is almost always predicated on just that.
Having said all of the important stuff about transparency and relationships, for this to work you have to do the work before the interview. An unprepared spokesperson will inevitably stumble.
Good PR practitioners research a reporter’s relevant articles, prepare talking points, rehearse them with the spokesperson in advance and suggest other angles in case the first ones are not resonating. This requires a command of the facts and data points by the spokesperson, along with a nimbleness to change focus when the line of questioning moves in a different direction.
The PR person also has to know the reporter well enough to understand his or her point of view and the questions that are likely to be asked.
Now let’s say that your spokesperson is not perfect. He might be nervous, have trouble remembering key messages, refuse to read briefing materials or just generally not care about media relationships. Sit in.There are important exceptions to the ideal scenario I presented above. So when should a PR pro be present?
When He or She Is Needed to Dispense Information. If your spokesperson is unreliable at remembering the talking points (or even simply too busy to prepare), a PR pro can be helpful in ensuring that all of the key points are conveyed. This only works when you have a PR person who is entrenched in the messaging and the business, which is the only way to be a good PR person in my book.
Crisis Situations. If your company is embroiled in a crisis, a spokesperson must stay on message and is frequently legally liable for anything off message. In this case, to protect the company, PR should always be involved.
An Inexperienced Spokesperson. Some spokespeople need help getting through their first media interviews. When a PR person is present, he or she can provide valuable feedback afterward about how to improve or adjust style and talking points.
Your Spokesperson is Not Good With Follow-Up. If you know for certain that your spokesperson will not be readily available for media follow-up questions, or fear that he or she won’t pass along next steps, as a PR professional, it’s best to attend these media briefings so you can close those loops.
Like almost every other issue that arises in PR, this one requires judgment. The PR pro’s role is to understand the circumstances that will result in the best possible coverage, and act accordingly. We must be good readers of people, press and spokespeople alike and provide the appropriate advice for maximizing each opportunity.
Beth Monaghan is a principal and co-founder of InkHouse Media + Marketing, a PR and social media agency based in Waltham, Mass. You can e-mail her at Beth@inkhouse.net, and find her on Twitter @bamonaghan.