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.