The importance of sitting in on interviews

While I wouldn’t call it a groundswell by any means, I was startled to encounter not one but two articles in a week that challenged the notion of having a public relations/corporate communications person sit in on interviews.

The first was this interview with Yann Martel by The Guardian‘s Stephen Moss, who admits that his first move is to ‘rather rudely insist that the young woman who is steering him round the UK and Ireland on the publicity tour for his new novel, Beatrice and Virgil, absent herself from the room while we talk.’

Ahem. I’m guessing Stephen Moss is a tad old school, shall we say, in terms of his views on PR folks? I think I might perhaps counter with the notion that anyone smart enough to get a more than one million dollar advance from a publisher in this day and age can probably figure out how to take a taxi by himself and get to an appointed meeting in a hotel, especially in a country where his own mother tongue is spoken. And that, therefore, the young woman’s role might have been just a bit more than merely that of courier/chaperone.

But then I saw this article from the fine folks at Knight Science Journalism Tracker at MIT, in which the suggestion was made that disclosure is necessary when a public information officer (who fills the role of a corporate communications or public relations person) sits in on an interview – and that the situation should be avoided at all costs to avoid having the interview ‘influenced.’

I’m both mystified and saddened by this suggestion. The single biggest complaint PR people hear from journalists – both mainstream and bloggers – is that they’re not appropriately ‘pitched’ – in other words, not enough time and care has been taken by the PR person before approaching a journalist. Bloggers complain that PR people don’t read their blogs and journalists complain that they too have been inappropriately targeted.

Sitting in on interviews with clients is a learning experience for a PR person in many ways. Ultimately it ends up being a learning experience for the client as well. My presence in interviews is as discreet as it can be, given that I’m actually there and haven’t yet mastered invisibility. In fact, I usually take notes, because it’s part of my job to assess my client’s actual performance and to determine if more media training or coaching is required. It would never occur to me to intervene in an interview after the ground rules have been established (and sometimes they do need to be). I can, however, be helpful in a variety of ways once the interview’s done, by providing additional prepared background information (you know, like the interviewee’s bio, correct spelling of name, exact title, etc.), and by ensuring journalists can meet their deadlines by getting supplementary material like photos sent directly to their editors if necessary. I can also help the journalist by finding them someone else to interview if they need to consult an independent third party expert.

Do I influence the interview? In one way, I can definitively answer, Certainly not. I am not the spokesperson. On the other hand, my – and my colleagues’ –  influence is necessary prior to the actual interview. My job is to ensure I provide and deliver a spokesperson who’s ready, willing and able to answer the questions the journalist poses – and who can do so in a timely fashion to ensure the journalist’s deadlines are met. I’ve been to enough briefings with enough new clients to know that no journalist has time to listen to an hour-long dissertation so mired in random detail that the journalist has probably forgotten the question by the time the answer is obliquely approached. Fun though conversational segues are in real life, this is business, both for the client and for the journalist.

I’d also add that many times, as I’m ‘steering’ clients around to interviews, my role is to sense their mood, help them overcome their apprehensions, and get them into the right frame of mind to provide a focused interview. Some clients are too low key, too low energy in that hour or so before the actual interview and need to be psyched up. Others come close to hyper-ventilating, and need to be reassured – or, if I’m confident they actually know their stuff – distracted from the prospect of the interview, so that by the time we arrive and the interview actually happens, they’re ready to put their best foot forward. It’s very similar to the frame of mind in which you want to be when you arrive at a job interview. As opposed to rain-soaked, fly undone, with windblown hair and 10 minutes late, you know.

I once sat in on an interview and did have a question for the journalist later on. Not actually being the soul of tact, my question went something like, ‘That was a really non-linear approach to an interview – your questions were all over the map – what’s up with that?’ The journalist explained it was a technique he used to get more spontaneous answers from subjects. Which is fine with me – I infinitely prefer lateral thinkers. But it’s something many of the software and other engineers and scientists with whom I worked might find disconcerting – which means they’ll need a heads up if I arrange an interview for them with that particular journalist.

When the interview’s over, the client gets some frank but constructive feedback on their performance. Sometimes they get their knuckles rapped, not so much for what they’ve said during the interview but for the way they’ve treated the journalist. ‘So who watches this show anyway, housewives?’ and ‘Thanks to the five of you who bothered to dial in for this teleconference’ were two remarks that earned clients a few performance-enhancing tips from me for the next round.

But let me ask some of you journalists, bloggers, and PR folks out there: what’s your view on this issue? Frankly I think it’s one of the most important services I can provide to a client.

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About ruthseeley

Ottawa born, Toronto educated, lived in the Lower Mainland and southern AB for more than a decade. Geographically, I get around a bit (at least within Canada). Passionate about community, democracy, and good books. Fond of the Oxford comma.
This entry was posted in client service, media relations, public relations and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to The importance of sitting in on interviews

  1. Colin says:

    When I saw your tweet “is it ok if PR folks sit in on interviews?” I was all riled up and ready to say never, never, never. But that is because I was picturing a different kind of “sitting in” than you meant.

    I’ve heard horror stories of Government of Canada media relations people sitting in on an interview, and deciding to end it when they felt the discussion was not going their way. This is, I think, one of the most ridiculous approaches to PR you can take. But the idea of sitting in to watch, to see what how your client behaves, and to see what journalists seem to be after in interviews with your client can only help you and your client work better together.

    You mentioned you try to be invisible, and I definitely think this is the most important part. At least from my own experiences, I like to do longer interviews, where the person I’m talking to has time to actually relax and maybe tell me a story or two, rather than quick hits for a soundbite. Having someone else “at the table” might break the intimacy of the discussion.

  2. ruthseeley says:

    Well of course I’m also the PR person who used to go marching around the office saying, ‘NO interview should consist merely of a recitation of key messages’ and ‘My role is to act as enabler and liaison between news maker and news reporter.’ So perhaps I’m unusual. Does this mean I can sit in on your interviews, Colin? 😉

  3. Hey Ruth. I’ve dealt with this issue from both sides. I can say I have never had a problem with a PR person being in the room when I was conducting the interview. Same goes from the other side of the desk.

    They usually help facilitate the process, since they may have a better idea than the owner or manager as to what the reporter actually wants to focus on. It makes sense, since the business person hires the PR person to help represent them — so why wouldn’t they have them on hand for the most important part, when they’re actually talking to the media?

    Problems crop up not when PR people are in the room, but when the executive lawyers up for a media interview (Perhaps they’re worried about ensuring the security of their intellectual property, for instance). The legal team is all about protecting the company from real or perceived threats, so they will always err on the side of caution, even when releasing certain info carries no realistic risk.

  4. ruthseeley says:

    There’s usually a big battle between PR and lawyers regarding the release of ANY information – and usually to the client’s detriment, sadly. Lawyers tend to think PR folks are incautious idiots, as opposed to those who’ve actually been studying things from a lot of angles for quite a while and are actually quite familiar with investor relations and disclosure regulations – and who have no desire to see their clients get sued either!

  5. James Frey says:

    Ruth — I always viewed interviews as learning experiences. When I was in government communications I listened in or hung around interviews with my cabinet minister. The goal was to hear the questions (to get an idea of the reporter’s slant) and answers (to see if the minister stayed on message). with both sets of information I could help manage the issue in advance of the next interview.

  6. ruthseeley says:

    James – I agree. Now to convince the rest of the world. Or at least the journalists in it.

  7. DC writer says:

    I think you made some good points, and I’m sure your motives are good. But as a journalist, I still think that when a PR person is in the room, I’m not getting as honest answers from the interview subject as I would if I were with them alone. No matter how you slice it, people will behave differently if they know someone is watching them, especially if that person is going to critique their replies. I think there are lots of ways that PR people can be helpful, but they don’t have to be in the room when the interview is being conducted in order to give the journalist the person’s bio, photo, or other information, or to provide answers to followup questions. That can all happen before or after the interview. I also don’t mind giving the PR person an idea of what I plan to ask the interview subject, if that’s helpful to them in order to prepare the interviewee. But I still think it’s best if they’re not in the room during the interview.

  8. ruthseeley says:

    Thanks for your comment, @dcwriter. I know the regulations on taping interviews (particularly phone interviews) vary between Canada and the US, but I think part of the rationale for having the PR person sit in on ‘print’ interviews is to ensure accuracy of reporting. How true is it, I wonder, that having someone else in the room affects the interview? For in-studio radio and TV interviews, there are producers, camera people etc. present and performing a similar behind-the-scenes function. Does that affect the interviewee’s performance too and the nature of the interaction? The broadcast end product, whether seen or heard, is really only a 1:1 illusion, not a reality.

  9. Paul Raeburn says:

    As the author of the piece on the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, I’d just like to say that the issue, as I see it, is clear from some of the words used in Ruth’s post and the comments: words such as “steer” and “manage,” and talk about prepping interviewees. I’ll concede that some prepping is reasonable for TV interviews, which I don’t do. But when I do an interview, I want to talk to somebody. And the less steering and managing, the more I like it. Public relations people have an agenda that sometimes–but not always–coincides with mine, as a reporter. It’s simpler and cleaner if I talk to the person I want to talk to, without interference, even if that interference is intended to be benign.

    So when things are being steered or managed, I think it’s reasonable to tell readers. We’re only telling them what they could see for themselves if they were sitting there, too.

  10. ruthseeley says:

    Paul – thanks for reading my piece and for commenting on it. As someone who’s dealt with clients both before and after media training, I can assure you that helping clients figure out what needs to be communicated benefits journalists too. Some have been so nervous they’ve been close to tears. Others have been so obscure it’s been hard to tell what their companies/products/services really are. I see media training as no more sinister than preparing for a job interview – and in many ways it’s quite similar (remember those headhunters who sprang up in the 1980s and offered job interview training and videotaping?). I’m interested that no one’s commented on the question I asked about whether the presence of camera people and radio producers affects the nature of the interaction. BTW – the word ‘steer’ appears in the quote from Stephen Moss and relates to getting the interviewee from one interview to another – that wasn’t my word. Perhaps you were reading too quickly, Paul?

  11. Mary says:

    I’ve been an arts journalist for many years, and I am definitely not in favour of having PR people sit in on interviews. No matter how silent or close to invisible a PR rep may be, their very presence makes the interview subject think twice about the way every comment might sound or be interpreted in the PR context. That self-consciousness is the enemy of interesting conversations and therefore good interviews. It may be helpful for the PR rep, but it certainly is not helpful for the journalist or, in the end, the subject.
    Priorities may well be different in interviews with government or corporate representatives, when staying on message is crucial, but good interviews with creative people only happen when they are allowed to be creative and spontaneous.

  12. ruthseeley says:

    Now that I’m working with more authors and publishers than true ‘corporate’ types I’d tend to agree with you Mary, except that I know my presence in the Green Room has helped produce better interviews. When I accompany a client to an interview, my job prior to the interview isn’t necessarily to rehearse them on their key messages. Sometimes my job is, frankly, to jolly the client along and get them psyched to do the interview – in the same way reminding someone of their very real skills and suitability for a job interview just before they set off for it can really help (I remember reading my horoscope just before going into a job interview once – reading ‘the world is your oyster’ was great!). One client did say I was ‘awfully perky for 5:30 AM’ but you know, they were so UNperky my babbling and making them laugh and saying, ‘knock ’em dead’ really helped them wake up. Which helped produce a far better interview than it would otherwise have been.

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