The one thing you should never ask a reporter prior to an interview
The reporter told me it’s happening with more frequency.
“It” is public relations professionals having the brazenness to ask reporters to submit their questions prior to an interview.
The trigger for our discussion was an instance where another PR professional had recently requested that the reporter submit routine interview questions in advance.
I wish I was surprised, but I have been seeing this more myself.
To those unfamiliar with conventional practice, it’s common on the PR side to prepare for an interview by trying to anticipate questions in advance. But typically, it’s the public relations professional who works to draft a set of anticipated questions to be covered. The simple purpose is to gather any necessary background and reference material or information for both interviewer and interviewee.
Think of it like studying for a final exam. The PR pro and the interviewee may even rehearse the interview in advance to give the interviewee as much comfort as possible going into the interview.
However, when it comes to the interviewer – the journalist – there are some clear boundaries for the PR pro.
Depending on the situation, there may be some negotiation on the terms of the interview, such as where it will take place, how long it will be and for reasons ranging from lack of expertise to legal constraints, what subjects the spokesperson cannot talk about.
Still, it’s reasonable to assume the reporter will ask some questions the interviewee would rather not answer. When that happens, it’s the interviewee’s job to come up with a response or remind the reporter that he or she can’t talk about that.
This recent situation was different. The subject matter and the interviewee were not controversial. Still, the PR pro involved wanted the reporter to come up with the list of anticipated questions and even seemed prepared to edit them prior to the interview.
Here’s why I think this kind of thing is happening with more frequency
The emergence of the eInterview. A large number of media interviews today are conducted digitally. The reporter sends a list of questions directly to the spokesperson or via a PR rep. That gives the spokesperson a chance to think through responses, and it decreases the likelihood of being misquoted. Since there is a digital trail, the reporter can assure a better level of accuracy and have a record of what was communicated. On both sides, eInterviews are great for productivity.
A reporter can shoot out a set of questions to five sources and move on to other things while waiting for a response. I wrote about a somewhat related practice in a recent Muck Rack column.
On the downside, however, this trend may have trained some PR people to presume it’s OK to ask a reporter for questions in advance of a live interview.
Leverage. The role of leverage in media relations has been around for a long time, and it is most prominent in celebrity publicity and high-profile political campaigns. Since individual reporters are assigned to particular campaigns or beats, the worst thing that can happen to any reporter is to receive selective access, limited access, or to be totally denied access to important sources.
That’s the leverage some PR people may have and use, even in the most mundane of circumstances, which can lead some PR reps to get into the habit of bullying reporters.
The rise of the independent novice. Because it’s not that hard to create a website and call yourself a communications professional, more people are doing it long before they’ve built up any depth of experience in the field. Problem is, many upstart PR freelancers have no idea, beyond technical skills, how to go about professional media relations practice. Too many don’t see themselves as anything more than a go-between, and don’t realize their true value should be in the journalistic judgement they are expected to bring to the table. They don’t fully appreciate how the media operates, and where the boundaries of professionalism lie.
Why It’s Wrong
So, why is it wrong to try to tell a reporter what she can and cannot ask in a media interview?
It’s amateur. Professional journalists are trusted by their editors and viewers and readers to use journalistic judgement in the research they do, the questions they ask and the stories they write. It’s amateur for any PR representative to think he or she can determine a finite list of questions for an interview.
It’s boorish and rude. Let’s say you know it’s wrong and you still try to use your leverage to tell a reporter what to ask. You may get away with it in the short term, but reporters, editors and some news organizations can have long memories.
It’s a form of censorship. In the end, trying to shape the questions on the reporter’s side of the fence is an attempt at censorship. Since we live in a First Amendment-protected society where freedom of the press is revered, it’s important to be reminded that censorship is not good. Even if it appears the reporter’s questions are a bit misguided, it’s not your job as a public relations pro to shape the reporter’s questions. It’s your job to come up with possible responses that, in themselves, put the focus where you think it should be.
What do you think, PR pros? Is it ever acceptable to ask for questions prior to an interview?
Tim O’Brien is owner of Pittsburgh-based O’Brien Communications, a corporate communications consultancy. He has over 30 years’ experience in communications and started his career as a journalist.
Photo: Media interview via Shutterstock