Wednesday, August 18, 2010

In media interviews, is 3 a crowd? A checklist for communicators

In the wayback time, press officers sometimes did and often didn't sit in on interviews with experts at their companies, government agencies or universities--and if they did, it was rarely disclosed. One of my mentors told me that getting yourself mentioned in an article was a true sign of having incurred the ire of the reporter, or having overstepped your boundaries.

But the command-and-control version of public affairs has taken hold in recent decades, and the third-wheel press officer has become a regular in interviews. The hands-off approach seems to be in decline in many interviews. Hence, health news service MedPage Today has pledged to disclose the presence of press officers who sit in on interviews.

The move has opened up a "discussion," of sorts, online, but it's mostly reporters talking to one another and press or public information officers (PIOs) talking within their ranks--and there's material enough for everyone.  Check out Paul Raeburn's piece on the Knight Science Journalism Tracker and a later piece that collects a conversation among mostly reporters on Twitter.  On the don't get caught page on Facebook, I heard from press officers (many former reporters) whose comments mostly sounded like this:
  • Mary Myers said, "When I have been present at interviews, it has almost always been at the request of the person (director, administrator, scientist, etc.) being interviewed and always in a supporting role. A PIO isn't there at the interview to act as a muzzle, but as a facilitator and aide if needed. How can that be construed as interference?":
  • Doug Levy said, "I've done interviews in hotel lobbies, elevators and all kinds of other places. Who else is there usually is irrelevant. If a PIO interrupts an interview or otherwise participates, that's different. When I am in a PIO or PR role, I'm there to make an introduction and handle any follow-up, nothing more. I am all for disclosure of material information, but this isn't material."
  • Jim E. Barlow noted, "It's not the role of a science PIO to be threatening or in the way of media ... or to carry a muzzle. Get real. I rarely staff such interviews; when I do I may followup with links or info that wasn't readily available during the interview."
But of course, we don't expect the extremes--the interview-stifling press officers or the reporters wishing you'd bring the reluctant expert to them--to publish their views here, do we?  The issue isn't as black-and-white as the high emotions on either side make it seem. My only disappointment in listening to this discussion over the summer is that either side feels threatened enough to paint it in extremes.

Like any other aspect of an encounter with a journalist, there's little communicators can do if the news organization chooses to use space to disclose the interview setting and who was present.  You show up, you might well show up in the story. That's always been possible. Reporters also can settle for not getting a desired interview, or just leave the interview if it's got a press officer present (though this rarely happens). If this convention of years past is crumbling, the best you can do is to take it as a sign of frustration over the over-use of this tactic, and reconsider your own policies, using this checklist of questions to get at the rationale clearly:
  • Must you send someone to sit in every interview? Why?
  • What are the reasons specific to this instance? 
  • What's the value to the interviewee? To the reporter? Do they agree with that statement?
  • Does the reporter know about this in advance, or are you just showing up?
  • Does that happen for every reporter, or just in particular instances? What are they?
  • What does your expert think about it? Have you discussed that option in advance and do they understand why you're going to be there?
  • What feedback do you get, formally or informally, from reporters about this practice? If it's not being shared, make it part of your regular discussions.
  • How often is your presence mentioned in news articles? When and why does that happen?
  • Will not sitting in reduce the number of experts willing to show up for interviews?  What else can you offer them--training in interview basics, an advance discussion--to make them more comfortable doing so?
  • Is transparency one of your stated goals as a company or organization? Where does this fit in?
Feel free to share your insights, practices and sure, frustrations, in the comments.

Check out don't get caught on Facebook, where I'm floating ideas and discussing them before they appear on the blog.  It's shaping up as a great networking community for communicators.

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