Should PR or comms people sit in on a media interview? That was the subject of a piece in the latest edition of PR Week.
It contained valid points and tips, but also proved to me that, just as no two journalists will ever write the same story in the same way, so reporters will give you many different responses to key questions about public relations, for example, “What’s the best way for a PR to contact a journalist, if they have a good story?”.
Unlike the author of the PR Week piece, I would struggle to think of any occasion when it’s a smart idea for a PR person to be there during an interview.
There’s good reason for this: it can become the story itself.
Just ask Formula One driver Felipe Massa.
Some years ago a national broadsheet journalist put in a request with Massa’s racing team at that time.
The reporter said various conditions were laid down by the team, including having a member of their press team present, who “will remain silent unless anything inappropriate is asked”.
The reason I know all this is because the reporter began his article by describing it in embarrassing detail, including the other conditions, such as the time limit (10 minutes) and the request for questions to be approved in advance (the newspaper refused).
The article wrapped up by outlining how the PR person asked for a particular part of the interview – something interesting the F1 star had mentioned – not to be included, because, the reporter wrote, the PR felt “it isn’t appropriate”.
From a journalist’s and reader’s perspective, it was a great article, but it’s always the worst possible PR outcome when the press person becomes the story.
But back to the PR Week piece…the author says, “Certainly in a crisis environment I would expect the PR person to be present during interviews.
“This is not about hand-holding, as you should be using an experienced spokesperson, but it is likely there will be numerous requests for interviews and being present will enable you to manage conflicting demands and have an accurate record of who has been spoken to and what has been said.”
It’s a fair point, but I’m going to politely beg to differ! I can see why a spokesperson might want their PR present, but again, it’s risky, not least because it can send out the message that here is a senior person at the heart of handling a breaking crisis – maybe a factory fire, a train crash, or a product recall over a food safety issue – and yet they can’t even answer some tough questions (but often predictable in a crisis) on their own. It’s hardly going to impress the public, who may spot the PR person hovering in the background in a TV interview or note a reference to them in a print article.
This situation is a good test of a company’s preparedness to handle the media in a crisis: if any senior person, who might be called upon to do media interviews, does not feel confident about doing them unless a comms person is alongside, that’s the time to seek media training – or more media training. And seek it now, not when the crisis is looming or in full flow.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not “anti-PR” – the majority do great work and journalists need them more than they’ll admit, but I never want them there when I’m interviewing someone.
However, sometimes, as with the Massa interview above, their attendance can’t be avoided, if the reporter really wants access to the interviewee.
(But to minimise the effect of the PR being there, as I’ve explained to aspiring journalists in training courses, the reporter should always be able to see both the interviewee and the PR person, to spot any silent signals that might indicate, for example “Stop now – you’ve said too much!”.)
Motor-racing gives us one final comparison here: you wouldn’t compete in a Formula One race if you and your team didn’t think you had the skills to handle it and, above all, no-one would suggest you need a co-driver offering advice through the trickiest chicane.
Yes, interviews will be challenging, even hazardous and there’s never been a perfect one, but at least take responsibility and make them yours.