What You Didn’t Learn in Class: How to Prep Clients For an Interview

Interview with a famous person. Television or internet broadcast where a journalist talks to a celebrity. Vector illustration in flat style

Public relations agencies have many tools to prepare a client for an interview. But perhaps the most important one is not in any text book or training manual, and that is, “common sense.”

Preparing a Client

Below are some “common sense” lessons you probably never learned in PR classes that should be used when preparing a client for an interview.

  • No matter how difficult an interview is, the client must avoid getting into a shouting match with a reporter.
  • The interview is never over, even if a TV reporter signals it is, or a print reporter turns off the tape recorder and puts away the notebook. Often after an interview, a reporter might call the interviewee and say there are a few more questions. That's part of the acceptable interview process. But what can trip up a client is when months after the original interview, another reporter calls about the same subject with additional questions that are based on the initial interview.
  • Anything you say after the formal interview is concluded can be used. Certain reporters might ask an unexpected “by the way” question after the interview. Clients should reply: “I’ll get back to you on that.” And the client should do so after deciding on an answer.
  • There is no such thing as an “off-the-record” conversation. Not all reporters honor this. Also, just because a client says, “This is off the record” doesn’t mean the reporter agrees. Expect that everything you say will be used.
  • Most reporters are friendly. But they have a job to do. Remember that.
  • Never say “no comment” to a question. Say, “I’ll check into that and get back to you.” And make certain the client does, through email, so no surprising follow-up questions will be asked.
  • Knowing the interviewer doesn’t mean only softball questions will be asked. The reporter’s bosses are watching.
  • Occasionally, a reporter will say, especially on live TV, “You’re not answering my question.” The client should not change an answer. Instead, the polite reply should be, “Yes, I have. I’ll be glad to repeat it if you want me to.”
  • Prepare for negative facts to be highlighted. If negative questions are untrue, the client should say so. If the negative facts are true, the client should say, “We’re discussing ways to remedy the situation but can’t discuss specifics at this time.” Then the PR agency should prepare answers for the client in case the reporter follows up at a later time. Do not provide theoretical examples. Some media trainers will say a properly trained client can turn a negative question into a positive and give theoretical examples. Remember the interviewer is a trained professional.
  • Be prepared to be unprepared. Some interviewers will disregard all pre-interview conversations with the account team and ignore the provided background information. Although this is a rare occurrence, the client should be prepared for such circumstances. There are a couple of ways to handle such a situation. The client can tell the interviewer that he or she doesn’t have the information on hand but will get back to them with it or that information is being updated "as we speak" before being made public. Answers like that usually will get the interviewer back on track. If it doesn’t, keep repeating, “I’ll be glad to answer that question in a couple of days after my staff updates the facts.”

What the PR Team Should Remember

  • Taped interviews can be edited in ways to make the reporter’s case. They should certainly be avoided with a controversial client, and do not arrange a taped interview for a client during a PR crisis.
  • The “tough” questions asked at an agency media training session are mostly useless. That’s because interviewers have their own set of questions. If a client cannot answer surprise questions, don’t suggest an interview for that person. A high-ranking executive who has a bad time during an interview can be a liability for you and the agency (and the brand in question).
  • Standard practice of some media trainers is to prepare the client with the toughest questions that the instructor can think of. Don’t let agency media trainers do that. The object is to prepare a client, not show how tough questions can be. Instead, prepare the client by asking about topics that have been recently covered in newspapers and trade pubs. Most likely that’s where researchers will go when preparing questions for the interviewer.

Also, I believe that turning over the training completely to your media training department is a big mistake, especially if you have an experienced account team. You can let the agency media trainers conduct the session if you have to play office politics, but only under the control of the account supervisor. No one knows the client’s strengths and weaknesses better than the account team, which should prepare the background information and questions for the media trainers.

I’ve been present at media training sessions where the trainers would have stock questions that they used regardless of the client. That’s a disservice to the client. Each media session should be structured to the client's need.

Arthur Solomon was a journalist and SVP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller who worked in sports and other sectors. Contact him: [email protected] 

[Editor's Note: The writer’s views do not necessarily reflect those of PRNEWS. We invite opposing essays from readers.]