Why it’s wrong for PRs to ask for questions before an interview

Question markAmateurish. Rude. Censorship. In this post written by Tim O’Brien, and originally published in Muck Rack, it is argued why PR executives should stop asking journalists for the questions before an interview.

More and more, public relations pros are brazenly asking reporters to submit their questions prior to an interview.

To those unfamiliar with conventional practice, it’s common on the PR side to prepare for an interview by trying to anticipate the questions. Typically, the PR pro works to draft questions that might be asked in order to gather any necessary background and reference material or information for both interviewer and interviewee.

It’s like studying for a final exam. The PR pro and the interviewee might even rehearse to give the interviewee as much comfort as possible going into the interview.

However, when it comes to the interviewer (the journalist), there are clear boundaries for the PR pro. There might be negotiation about the interview terms, such as duration, location and—for reasons ranging from lack of expertise to legal constraints—off-limits topics.

Still, it’s reasonable to assume the reporter will ask some questions the interviewee would rather not answer. When that happens, it’s the interviewee’s job to come up with a response or remind the reporter that he or she can’t talk about that specific topic.

Sometimes a PR pro wants the reporter to divulge the anticipated questions—and even modify them—prior to the interview. That’s not OK.

Here’s why this kind of thing is happening with more frequency:

The emergence of the e-interview. Many media interviews today are conducted digitally. The reporter emails questions directly to the spokesperson or via a PR rep. That gives the spokesperson a chance to formulate responses, and it decreases the likelihood of being misquoted. Because there is a digital trail, the reporter can ensure greater accuracy and have a record of what was communicated.

On both sides, e-interviews enhance productivity. A reporter can shoot out a set of questions to five sources and move on to other things while waiting for the responses.

On the downside, this trend has conditioned some PR people to presume it’s OK to ask a reporter for questions in advance of a live interview.

Leverage. This is most prevalent in celebrity publicity and high-profile political campaigns. Because individual reporters cover particular campaigns or beats, it can be devastating when a reporter gets selective or limited access or is totally denied access to important sources.

That leverage can lead some PR reps to get into the habit of bullying reporters.

The rise of the independent novice. Because it’s easy to create a website and call yourself a communications professional, more people are doing it long before they’ve built up any depth of experience in the field.

Many PR freelancers have no idea, beyond technical skills, how to go about professional media relations practice. Too many see themselves as nothing more than a go-between, not realizing that their value should be in the journalistic judgment they are expected to bring to the table.

They don’t understand how the news media operate, nor where the boundaries of professionalism lie. Why should it be wrong, they figure, to tell a reporter what she can and cannot ask in a media interview?

It’s amateurish. Editors, readers and viewers trust professional reporters to use journalistic judgment in the research they do, the questions they ask and the stories they write. It’s unprofessional for any PR representative to think he or she can dictate interview questions.

It’s boorish and rude. Let’s say you know it’s wrong, yet you still try to use your leverage to tell a reporter what to ask. You might get away with it in the short term, but reporters and editors have long memories, and you’ll probably lose access.

It’s a form of censorship. Even if it appears the reporter’s questions are misguided, it’s not your job to shape them. It is your job to come up with possible responses that shift the focus to where you think it should be.

What do you think, PR pros? What alternatives have you devised, rather than soliciting questions prior to an interview?

Tim O’Brien runs US-based PR firm O’Brien Communications

A few months ago, in an interview with Mumbrella, media expert Mark Laudi, a former presenter for CNBC, bemoaned the trait of PRs asking journalists for the questions upfront.

What this succeeds in doing, Laudi suggested, is to persuade the journalist to think that the interviewee is a “deer in the headlights” who either does not know what they’re talking about, or is afraid they’re get a question they don’t know how to answer.

Of course, not everyone would agree with that, as ‘Yingy’ a former PR executive working in Singapore, intoned on Twitter.

Here are some particularly irritating times Mumbrella has been asked for the questions before an interview.

Strategic Communications for an interview with NTUC Income:

Can you share with me a list of questions that will guide the interview?

FTI Consulting for an interview with The Marketing Group:

Ahead of your meeting with Callum Laing tomorrow, are you able to provide a list of indicative talking points or questions?

Pixels for an interview about their new programmatic offering:

We are more than happy to arrange an email Q&A or tele-conference sharing with you and your team.  May be you let us know the list of questions you have in mind and we move forward from there?

NinemerPR for the Asia TV Forum:

Before we make arrangements for your request, would it be possible to advise on the angle for this interview? Grateful if you could share your questions.

Fast Track Agency on behalf of StarHub:

**** has requested that we please trouble you in the meantime to send across an outline of the anticipated questions you intend to ask.

Wunderman ahead of an interview with new CEO:

Could I please trouble you to send through your questions ahead of this? We would need to put together an interview brief for his perusal.

Ogilvy for an interview with Courts:

Please let us know how we can proceed with us, do share the interview questions with us and we will get back to you on this.

Weber Shandwick for an interview with Facebook:

Do you have some questions in mind you could flick through before next week’s chat?

Saatchi & Saatchi China’s PR team for an interview with their creative director:

May I know if you will send over some questions? And when will you prefer to do that?

The Hoffman Agency for an interview with agency founder Lou Hoffman:

Will you be able to share the questions ahead of the interview on Monday?

No matter how it is phrased, it still rankles.


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