Four Interview Nightmares Guaranteed to Give PR Specialists Heartburn

A few weeks ago, Ilyasha Shabazz, the daughter of Malcolm X, the revered Civil Rights icon, was interviewed by Michel Martin on National Public Radio about a controversial new book, that claimed her father had at one time worked as a male escort.

When confronted with that very sensitive question Shabazz, simply got up and walked out of the interview. I said to myself, “I sure feel sorry for her publicist.”

Anybody who has worked in the public relations industry knows that this is a major faux pas that can do irreparable damage with the media, if you ever have to work with them again.

But it got me thinking, what are the interview nightmares that keep PR professional up at night?

Here are a few I came up with:

A client asks to see the story before it runs. This is guaranteed to make PR professionals grind their teeth in frustration. It is common knowledge in the media business that you only get to see the story when it runs. The best thing you can do is ask the reporter to read the quotes back to you to make sure they are accurate. This is something that the PR specialist needs to explain to the client before the interview.

The interview turns ugly. Sometimes the interviewee gets annoyed at the way the interview is going and gets aggressive with the journalist, or the reporter gets annoyed at the interview and becomes combative. In addition, there are some journalists who prefer the go-for-the jugular style, which makes for good TV. I had a client who told a reporter she didn’t like his questions and thought he was pulling her a leg. The solution for this is preparation. PR practioners need to screen reporters, so their clients don’t go in blind. And if the interview is going to be hostile, they need to prepare their client for the worst possible questions. Researching Howard Stern is useful, because he is known to ask his guests the most embarrassing questions. The recent blow up between Chris Brown and Robin Roberts could have been avoided if Brown’s PR people had prepared him. He should have known that he would be questioned about the Rhianna incident.

The client gives incorrect or false information. Although PR professionals have a reputation for being slippery and playing fast and loose with the truth, the PR field does have a code of ethics, and one of the items is being truthful. I have met many journalists who assume that PR professionals always lie, which is not the case. A PR specialist who gives out inaccurate information soon loses credibility with the media and eventually will stop seeking him out for comment. Most decent PR professionals will stress to their clients that they should never lie to the media. If your client makes a mistake, the best thing you can do is try to get it corrected as soon as possible.

The client goes off topic. Before any interview, a PR practioner should sit down with their client and go over their talking points. Clients don’t have to memorize what they are going to say, but they should at least remember the points that should get across in the interview. If the interview is done over the phone, the client can use cue cards to help them remember their points. The only problem with this scenario is that inexperienced clients might get that deer-in-the headlights look if the interview veers off topic. It’s a good idea for PR practioners to sit in on interviews, so they can gently nudge the conversation back in the right direction. The interviewee can counter this tactic, by saying that he wants to stick to the topic at hand.

After reviewing these scenarios, the one thing I come away with is preparation, preparation, preparation. A good PR practioner does not let his client go into an interview without a clue of what is going to happen. Sometimes we have to literally hold their hands through the interview, but that’s why media relations is an important part of the PR industry, and that is why our clients pay us.

Manny Otiko, vice president of social and new media at Desmond & Louis PR, has worked in the public relations and journalism field for about 15 years as a journalist and a media relations specialist. His experience includes stints as a reporter at a daily newspaper, serving as a media relations specialist for a state agency and working for Southern California public relations agencies, Dameron Communications, Tobin and Associates and WunderMarx PR.

Manny has worked with clients in the public affairs, technology, education and economic development fields. He has secured coverage in publications such as The Los Angeles Times, USA Today, the Associated Press, the Wall Street Journal, CNN.com and Men’s Health.

Manny has been published in The Riverside Press Enterprise, The LA Sentinel, The LA Wave, The Washington Afro-Am, IE Weekly and Our Weekly. He is an active member of the Orange County chapter of PRSA, the National Association of Black Journalists and the Black Journalists’ Association of Southern California.

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  • http://twitter.com/John_Trader1 John Trader

    Great post Manny!  You are dead on with the preparation strategy, it has to be #1 priority for any PR professional.  Thorough preparation for any situation in an interview will always make the client look smart, poised and perhaps even more importantly — invited back again in the future.

  • http://www.kimberlyciesla.com KimberlyCiesla

    What a great post, Manny. Thanks for sharing.

  • Greenbeens

    During my journo days, I have all of the above happen to me. Prepping clients for the worst is always the best preparation before speaking with any media. Great post!!! 

  • Lori

    Excellent post!  Another heartburn moment is the old “no comment” statement.  When a reporter hears those words, you’ve just given them ammo to dig further!

  • http://twitter.com/Mannyotiko Manny Otiko

    Lori, that is a given. But I should have included that. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/lillian.brummet Lillian Brummet

    One media nightmare is when the guest you are interviewing does nothing but promote, promote, promote. They forget that an interview is a conversation, not an ad or sales pitch. They answer every question with what they want to say, instead of responding to the question itself. It can be a real pain in the rear end and offensive to the media rep they are dealing with.