Glenn Thrush, the chief political correspondent for Politico, recently sent several surprising tweets about the promises that reporters make—and break—with communications staffers arranging interviews with their principals.
His main argument? It’s acceptable to “lie” to PR pros by promising a favorable story in exchange for access—and then doing the story you want to do anyway.
I’ll let others debate whether such lies are acceptable. My interest is less in serving as an arbiter of journalistic ethics than in offering some insight into the mind of a journalist.
Thrush’s frankness surprised me at first—his blunt (if tongue-in-cheek) tone seemed a bit shocking. Yet the more I thought about his message, the more I realized he was just saying out loud what most experienced PR pros have encountered at some point in their career.
From a reporter’s point of view, I’m not sure he’s wrong.
A reporter’s primary function is to get the story. It’s easy to see how political journalists, tasked with reporting stories in the public interest but facing a climate filled with spin, subterfuge and misdirection, might be tempted to fudge the agreements they make when setting up interviews.
Skirting those agreements may be necessary to expose wrongdoing. Reporters who give PR pros advance warning about an unfavorable allegation may find themselves denied access to a principal. Even if the interview is approved, the principal will have had time to compose a carefully crafted response, denying the public an honest response to a difficult charge.
To paraphrase Mark Twain, there are lies and damn lies. Reporters who regularly commit the latter will find themselves denied future access, reducing their ability to report effectively.
What does this mean for you?
When I conduct practice interviews with our clients, I often land on a challenging topic and watch the spokesperson begin to obfuscate. Sometimes I’m not even planning to ask a follow-up question—but the spokesperson’s limp initial response tells me there’s a fuller explanation behind it. Whether I had made an “agreement” in advance of the interview or not, I would still ask the follow up. It’s my job. I’m motivated to cut through the spin and get the real answer.
Therefore, go into interviews with your eyes open. Recognize that some reporters—whether motivated by honest news motives or not—might break the rules.
Although you can try to enforce the rules during the interview (“You said we weren’t going to talk about that!”), doing so might make you look worse than just answering the questions despite the violated deal.
Prepare for the interview as if no deal exists, and assume you will be hit with unexpectedly difficult questions. As Thrush’s tweets make clear, those are very real possibilities.
Brad Phillips is the president of Phillips Media Relations, which specializes in media and presentation training. He is author of the Mr. Media Training Blog (where a version of this article originally appeared) and two books: “The Media Training Bible” and “101 Ways to Open a Speech.”