As a former reporter, I have found one of the most misunderstood aspects of PR concerns media interviews with executives. Some PR people become excited when a reporter calls them saying, “I want an interview," oblivious to the fact that interviewees have rights prior to and during an interview.
In all cases, before agreeing to an interview, a PR pro should advise the executive about what I call the interviewee’s Bill of Rights. As noted above, the most important concept is that an interviewee has rights.
Below are some other rights (for the interviewee) and obligations (for PR pros).
- Think of an interview invitation as a negotiation: Make certain that the time, date and place of the interview are satisfactory to the reporter and the interviewee.
- Prior to arrangements being finalized, the PR pro should request to know the scope of the interview. (Of course, the interviewee should be made aware that depending on breaking news and answers to questions, the interview might take a completely different direction than was expected, and perhaps agreed upon. Shaun White and Jamie Foxx are recent examples of those who seem to have been unaware of this concept. Perhaps their PR representatives failed to brief them.)
- The interview always should be recorded; inform the reporter that you want to make a tape. Make sure that’s agreed to in advance.
- The interviewee should be told that while a reporter can ask any question, not all questions have to be answered. Questions can go unanswered by telling a reporter:
- "Someone else at my company can best answer your question." Offer to facilitate a phone call to the proper person.
- "I'm sorry. That’s proprietary information."
- "I'm sorry. I don’t answer hypothetical questions."
- "I disagree with your premise."
- "I’ll need to check the facts and get back to you with an answer to that question." (Make sure you do.)
- "We have facts that are different from those in your question. I’ll get them to you." (Again, make sure you do.)
- An interviewee has the right to answer a question completely. If interrupted the interviewee should insist on completing the answer and refuse to go on until the answer is completed.
- It’s OK to challenge a reporter’s opinion.
- There is nothing wrong, and it is preferable, for the interviewee to refer to notes before answering a question.
- Never engage in small talk prior to or after the interview. The reporter can use whatever is said during an informal chat.
- Repeating a negative question by the reporter should never be part of an answer.
- Be expansive when answering a question. Reporters like that and it provides the interviewee with an opportunity to deliver talking points.
- Try to work in your talking points as part of an answer to an important question.
- The interviewee should limit key points to three and keep repeating them whenever possible. Attempt to work them in during the first minute of an interview.
- Interviewees should avoid using “inside baseball” terminology during an interview.
- If the interview is with a print publication and the interviewee feels that an important element was missed, it’s okay for him/her to say at the end of an interview, “I’d like to discuss one more aspect that I feel is important.”
- Good reporters dislike including incorrect information in a story. So, if an answer includes complex financial information, (which might be needed for print publications), always suggest having that part of the story checked by the interviewee’s financial department prior to publication.
- The PR pro should provide a critique to the interviewee after each interview. Also, a synopsis of the interview should be prepared and distributed to each member of the PR team. Doing so could provide additional topics that the account team overlooked.
Most reporters are cordial and polite. They are not out to “get you.” But interviewees must always be told that, while friendly, the reporters are there to do a job and that is to report the truth, not protect an interviewee.
So my cardinal rule is that there is no such thing as off the record comments. Anything said during, before or after an interview can appear in a story. In fact, anything said anywhere can end up being reported. (Hope Hicks found out that even what you tell the House Committee on Intelligence behind closed doors can end up being reported.)
Remember, an interview can provide material that reporters will use in other stories. It should be unsurprising if one interview leads to several stories without a reporter contacting you.
Arthur Solomon is a former journalist and SVP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller. A frequent contributor to PR publications, he was on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at: [email protected]