When Interviews Go Bad

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microphone © by Daehyun Park

Three minutes into a recent phone call with a source, I went from mild mannered professional to the Incredible Hulk. At least on the inside.

“My team wasn’t prepared for this,” he told me in a quiet voice as I reminded myself that I was having this conversation in the lobby of Tribune Tower and not in my apartment, where I would be free to bring down the heavens on him.

There are fewer things that make my or any other reporter’s blood boil quite like the phrase I heard above during a phone conversation with a subject I had profiled recently who shall remain anonymous. The phone call was set up after a frantic stream of e-mails from his publicist after she learned in the process of setting up a photo shoot for the subject. She was upset that portions of an interview that she had done with me were going to be used in my story and that she was going to be identified.

A couple of important things to note here — his “team,” as it were, was the one who initiated the conversation. They pitched me an idea and set up a time to meet at a local bar to do an interview more than a week in advance. The publicist agreed to be interviewed and knew that my recorder was rolling the entire time, but yet she claimed she felt somewhat ambushed.

That could not be farther from the truth.

This wasn’t me standing outside of City Hall ambushing a public figure accused of corruption. The interview subject and his team had plenty of time to prepare; and this was in about as PR-friendly of a setting as you’ll ever find.

Since the beginning of time, publicists have been attempting to control what’s said about their clients. I was once a publicist myself. I get this. There are clients to please and bills that need to be paid. With that in mind, here are a few quotes that stood out to me. These phrases that shouldn’t ever be uttered outside of the confines of an office setting; and certainly not to a reporter.

“I’m concerned about how this will impact my brand’s image.” Spoiler alert: I don’t give a flying fudgesicle about your brand or its image. Your job is to make sure your brand is portrayed in a positive light. Mine is to tell stories that are interesting and relevant to my readers. At no point should a publicist or a source think they have control over the questions that are being asked or how the story is going to be constructed. I don’t tell you how to do your job; kindly do not tell me how to do mine.

“My team wasn’t prepared for this.” There is no excuse for this whatsoever. If you set up a story with a writer, you have to know that everyone and everything that happens is fair game to be written about, unless you explicitly go off the record. If you don’t want to be interviewed, politely decline the interview, but know that the story’s likely going to run with or without your participation if it’s newsworthy. If you feel your team isn’t prepared, either leave them at home or reschedule the interview if possible so that you are ready to talk.

“Is ___ going to be included in your story?” That’s none of your business. At the end of the day, there are two groups of people who get to determine what goes into one of my stories – my editors and myself. That’s it.

“I’m not asking you to do this as a businessman…” Unless you’re my boss, that argument doesn’t fly either. If you want an advertisement in one of my publications, feel free to reach out to our sales staff. They’ll be sure to help you out.

You’d think some of these would be among the most basic rules of the public relations industry, especially when dealing with people who claim to be “media savvy,” perhaps the most over-and-misused term out there.

There’s a lot of effort that goes into getting a placement. You have to develop an effective pitch that will fit into the news cycle, research the appropriate journalists to send it to, build a relationship with a writer and then turn that pitch into an actual coverage. It’s a simple process made needlessly complicated by people either overthinking or, worse, not thinking at all.

The bottom line – when your moment comes, make sure you’re prepared enough so that you’re not suffering a case of buyer’s remorse the day after the interview.

Matt Lindner is a Chicago-based freelance sports and news feature writer whose work has appeared in publications such as the Chicago Tribune’s RedEye, ESPN.com and MLB.com. The highlight of his writing career was attempting to eat a triple cheeseburger, two plates of poutine and a birthday cake shake in under 30 minutes as part of a man-vs-food style challenge for RedEye. He failed miserably at the challenge but got a good story out of it. In past lives, Lindner has been a local television news reporter for NBC and CBS affiliates and spent parts of three years as one of the Milwaukee Brewers’ racing sausages. He holds a M.A. in Broadcast Journalism from the University of Miami and a B.A. in Psychology from Purdue University.

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