More and more, public relations pros are brazenly asking reporters to submit their questions prior to an interview.
To those unfamiliar with conventional practice, it’s common on the PR side to prepare for an interview by trying to anticipate the questions. Typically, the PR pro works to draft questions that might be asked in order to gather any necessary background and reference material or information for both interviewer and interviewee.
It’s like studying for a final exam. The PR pro and the interviewee might even rehearse to give the interviewee as much comfort as possible going into the interview.
However, when it comes to the interviewer (the journalist), there are clear boundaries for the PR pro. There might be negotiation about the interview terms, such as duration, location and—for reasons ranging from lack of expertise to legal constraints—off-limits topics.
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 specific topic.
Sometimes a PR pro wants the reporter to divulge the anticipated questions—and even modify them—prior to the interview. That’s not OK.
Here’s why this kind of thing is happening with more frequency:
The emergence of the e-interview. Many media interviews today are conducted digitally. The reporter emails questions directly to the spokesperson or via a PR rep. That gives the spokesperson a chance to formulate responses, and it decreases the likelihood of being misquoted. Because there is a digital trail, the reporter can ensure greater accuracy and have a record of what was communicated.
On both sides, e-interviews enhance productivity. A reporter can shoot out a set of questions to five sources and move on to other things while waiting for the responses.
On the downside, this trend has conditioned some PR people to presume it’s OK to ask a reporter for questions in advance of a live interview.
Leverage. This is most prevalent in celebrity publicity and high-profile political campaigns. Because individual reporters cover particular campaigns or beats, it can be devastating when a reporter gets selective or limited access or is totally denied access to important sources.
That leverage can lead some PR reps to get into the habit of bullying reporters.
The rise of the independent novice. Because it’s easy 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.
Many PR freelancers have no idea, beyond technical skills, how to go about professional media relations practice. Too many see themselves as nothing more than a go-between, not realizing that their value should be in the journalistic judgment they are expected to bring to the table.
They don’t understand how the news media operate, nor where the boundaries of professionalism lie. Why should it be wrong, they figure, to tell a reporter what she can and cannot ask in a media interview?
It’s amateurish. Editors, readers and viewers trust professional reporters to use journalistic judgment in the research they do, the questions they ask and the stories they write. It’s unprofessional for any PR representative to think he or she can dictate interview questions.
It’s boorish and rude. Let’s say you know it’s wrong, yet you still try to use your leverage to tell a reporter what to ask. You might get away with it in the short term, but reporters and editors have long memories, and you’ll probably lose access.
It’s a form of censorship. Even if it appears the reporter’s questions are misguided, it’s not your job to shape them. It is your job to come up with possible responses that shift the focus to where you think it should be.
What do you think, PR pros? What alternatives have you devised, rather than soliciting questions prior to an interview?
Tim O’Brien is owner of Pittsburgh-based O’Brien Communications, a corporate communications consultancy. He started his career as a journalist and has over 30 years of experience in communications. A version of this article first appeared on Muck Rack, a service that enables you to find journalists to pitch, build media lists, get press alerts and create coverage reports with social media data.