Three Questions A PR Person Should Never Ask A Reporter

As a PR pro, you are constantly communicating with reporters, whether it be pitching, coordinating interviews, or interacting on social media. Staying in contact with relevant contacts is one of the most important aspects of PR. But to maintain these valuable relationships, it’s vital to remember your role and not overstep boundaries. Here are several questions a PR professional should never ask a reporter. 

“Can we have the questions in advance?”

You’ve drafted the perfect pitch, sent it to relevant targets, and now you’ve secured a media interview. Your job is done, right? Not quite. Now it’s the responsibility of the PR person to make sure the spokesperson is as well prepared as possible, including any tough questions the reporter might ask. 

On the PR side, it is best practice to try to anticipate interview questions in advance. This is done by reviewing the reporter’s background, beat, recent articles, any previous conversations you have had, and the tone of conversations to date. Based on this research, PR people typically draft a set of potential questions and may even conduct a practice interview with the client in advance. This idea is to give them as much comfort as possible and produce a positive interview. 

Yet there’s one question PR people shouldn’t ask a reporter: “Can we have the interview questions in advance?” 

This is doubly tricky because many companies, including clients of ours, might reasonably want to know this. Naturally they want to be ready for the exchange. But asking this of a reporter isn’t a good idea. It’s not the journalist’s job to prepare the interviewee, and it looks amateurish.

Preparing for a media interview is almost like getting ready for a final exam – while you don’t know the exact questions, with a bit of research and some homework, you can anticipate most of them and, above all, prepare your own messages and story.

“So, when is this piece going to run?” 

Asking this isn’t terrible, but it can be presumptuous in some circumstances. 

If the reporter has made it clear that a piece is in the works and your comments will be included, it’s important to understand that media have jam-packed editorial schedules and tight deadlines, especially during news cycles filled with breaking stories. Asking a journalist when a certain piece will go live is a little like asking what the weather will be like next week – there may be no real, definite answer, because things change. Sometimes reporters will keep a story in queue for several months, as more urgent, timely pieces have to get out first. 

Rather than continuously following up with the reporter, the PR best practice is to be patient and monitor for it. Keyword alerts and a daily browse of the publication (which we should do anyway) help flag the story as soon as it’s published.  

“Can we see the story before you publish?”

If a journalist has confirmed that a story including your spokesperson’s interview comments is planned, the worst question a PR person can ask might be, “Can we read the story before you publish?” 

Most respectable media outlets will be offended by such a request. Journalists are objective, and offering the story for review can be seen as an invitation to edit or change it, casting doubt on that objectivity. It’s also presumptuous and betrays a lack of understanding of the journalism process. And if they do it for you, they’ll have to do it for everyone — not realistic even if they’re willing! 

Of course, a reporter may contact us to check a quote or verify information, and many publications undergo a rigorous fact-checking process for longer articles. But in general the reporter is relying on us to be accurate the first time. If you’re concerned about quotes during the interview, ask to have them read back to you in that moment. No one wants to get it wrong, which is why PR people work hard to make sure any information we share is accurate and thorough. 

Yet there are times to be assertive

Of course, there are times when a PR representative needs to be assertive with a journalist or push back with requests in our clients’ interest. It may be during tricky negotiations over ground rules for an exclusive interview with a C-level executive, or on the rare occasion when important information is misconstrued or inaccurate. 

A sensitive announcement or a high-stakes interview that impacts corporate reputation may require additional oversight from the PR person to ensure all facts and quotes are accurate. 

Reporters are helping us, not the other way around 

In PR, it’s helpful to foster meaningful and lasting relationships with relevant media contacts. A solid relationship helps ensure you’re top-of-mind when a journalist or producer needs expert commentary for a piece, an introduction to your company or industry, or a quick quote. Being strategic with your communication is key. Overly aggressive pitching, too many follow-ups, or a request to bend the rules will not make you popular. 

PR Guide to Stellar Briefing Books

The practice of public relations is seen as a creative one, but it often depends on meticulous preparation. The PR briefing book is no exception; it’s a simple tool, yet a critical asset for a brand spokesperson to prepare for media interviews. The best briefing books offer a go-to reference and “study guide” so an interviewee has full background on the reporter, the outlet, and the best messaging for the opportunity.

PR guide to stellar briefing books

Make it easy on the eyes

Since the interviewee may be reviewing the document on the fly while in transit or during the interview(s), it should be well structured and easy to read. The when, where, who, and the featured topic should be scannable at the top of the document. If the executive is talking to multiple journalists, the briefing book should have a table of contents, an interview schedule grid, and the top three recommended messages for each exchange (different journalists may focus on different story angles.) Also essential are the reporter’s background information, a description of his publication, and any relevant preferences for the meeting.

The message is the medium

The most important parts of the briefing book are the messaging and questions sections. Although the PR team will have thoroughly prepped the spokesperson, they will also outline potential questions and recommended points for response. It’s generally impossible to predict a journalist’s questions with 100% accuracy, but sample queries can give the spokesperson a degree of comfort that makes for a smoother dialogue. Additionally, briefing documents should include an “expected outcome” outlining the desired next steps.

Briefing books shouldn’t contain sensitive material

In 2016, Gizmodo got ahold of a stray email thread from a Microsoft employee that included some highly detailed “dossiers” about journalists. While not patently nefarious, the documents included a rather deep dive into journalists’ predilections, including a “tips and tricks” section (presumably to handle or outwit reporters) and information on some reporters’ strong personal opinions about competitive products. The article’s author also found it “creepy” that the briefings included photos of the reporters.

We at Crenshaw Communications do not have a “tips & tricks” section, but we do offer headshots  – simply to put a name to a face. We also include the reporter’s three most recent and relevant articles and their Twitter handles, offering a glimpse into the style and beat of the journalists. But it goes without saying that you shouldn’t put anything in a medium briefing book that you wouldn’t want the reporter to see. (On the more nefarious front, in 2015 Columbia Journalism Review uncovered a company called NewsBios that sold reporter dossiers to PR pros. These dossiers contained some genuinely sensitive biographical information like home addresses and names of pets. Not recommended.)

Aside from the document itself, the PR pros will also brief the interviewee on the reporter’s general style based on previous experience. On the other side of the table, the PR contact will often supply the reporter with background on the spokesperson if they’re not acquainted.

Though a relatively small and tactical piece in the PR puzzle, a well-constructed briefing book  is an indispensable media relations roadmap. See last week’s post for a deeper dive into PR facilitation of media interviews.

A Journalist’s POV: Questions From A NY PR Firm

In the hectic world of consumer and tech PR, finding journalists you can have a relationship with — who will read your emails, respond, and whenever they can, say “yes” to your pitch — is a gift. Liz Brody, Glamour‘s News Director, is one of those journalists. Previously she was news and health director at O, the Oprah Magazine, and a blogger at Yahoo’s Shine! She’s a nutter for dogs, guitarists, and the back of a Harley—and then there was the year she spent playing a breakdancing Alvin the Chipmunk! She also cut her teeth in public relations so she knows the business. She graciously agreed to sit for our “Journalist’s POV” and we let her answer four questions since her input is so valuable.

What’s a big challenge you regularly face as a journalist that a PR person can help with? Finding amazing human-interest stories that have never been told. If a PR person can come up with an exclusive real-life story that is somehow related to the project/product she’s pitching, and she can offer it to me exclusively, I swear I will always answer her emails.

What one piece of advice would you give to a PR rep pitching a story? This is embarrassing to admit, but if she’s read some of my pieces and is familiar with the kinds of topics I’m drawn to, that will give her an edge. So she might be able to say, “I know you wrote about a sex trafficking last year, I am working with a new campaign that I think will interest you.”  Also, once again, if she’s giving me an exclusive idea—just for me. What’s disturbing is when I know she’s pitched the same thing to my five competitors. This comes out in conversation and I know it’s part of the job, but once again if a PR rep is familiar with writers’ work, they should know when a pitch should at least come first to a particular person.

What makes a good / bad interview subject for you? Good: Funny, quirky, open, emotional. When you can just have a conversation.
Bad: When you can feel the talking points talking. And they won’t get off the script.

What about a subject line will compel you to read it? Unless you have something really funny or genuinely intriguing to say, don’t try too hard to dazzle me into opening. I have seen variations on this that sometimes actually work against the sender. You know what works? If you can reference a colleague who knows me well and knows my interests, simply say “Sally Smith thought you might be interested.”

A Journalist’s View: Three Questions From A PR Pro

Rachel Weingarten is a weekly style columnist for Parade.com and opinion columnist for amNewYork who also freelances for CNN Digital, Esquire.com Fortune, Newsday, USA Today and many others. Rachel is the author of three non-fiction books including Ancient Prayer: Channeling Your Faith 365 Days of the Year.

The most important rule to remember when pitching a freelance writer is…Unlike writers on staff, we tend to have existing ongoing relationships with numerous outlets. Depending on the product, person or project, it’s entirely possible that we can include your client in one or more stories and publications. Once you have an existing relationship with a freelancer, don’t be disappointed if they reject your pitch to one of their outlets; it’s best to be open to different outlets, even they aren’t your initial targets.  For the same reason, always try to offer more than one facet to your pitch. This is a great way to create an ongoing relationship. One more thing, if your contact is a regular contributor or columnist, check to see if they’re still with the publication when you pitch.

As a freelancer, I am typically working on… any number of stories with a workload that might ebb and flow. For instance, I write a weekly column for Parade.com, am an editorial columnist for amNewYork and contribute to lots of other publications as a freelancer. I also take on new assignments regularly. I do copywriting and marketing copy, so in a given week I could be writing a minimum of two articles and thousands of additional words. Or I might be working on my books while keeping up all of the rest. And during all of this, I also might be researching and interviewing sources for upcoming articles. My writing is a business, and as such I create structure and manage many moving parts. But I also have clients and editors that I love working with, so I’ll happily accept extra assignments from them even during the busiest times- I just try to figure out how to manage my deadlines better.

Sometimes I am at the whim of my editors which means… that I might not be able to predict when a story of mine might run. In fact, I usually have no idea whatsoever when my pieces appear. I usually tell publicists that it’s entirely possible that they’ll see a story before I do. It also means that sometimes stories get killed or sections or product recommendations are cut. And while I value my relationships with publicists, I also realize that I have to smile and accept the decisions of my editors.

That’s right, we all have to smile and accept the decisions of editors!