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Questioning Reporters: Media Relations With Bob

Each month for the next year, PRAL’s Bob Johannessen will offer tips to help members improve their media relations. From polishing your news conference to keeping unhappy journalists from making you very unhappy, this column will focus on one question with proven strategies and tactics.

To ensure that I can provide a reporter with the most appropriate person to answer questions, can I ask the reporter for the questions in advance? How about asking to see the story before it’s published or aired?

Just like a batter in baseball would like to know what pitch to expect – a fastball or a curve - we would all like to know the questions in advance, as well as see the story before it is published. But, as the Houston Astros found out after stealing signs, this isn’t a good idea.

If you make either of these requests, you will look like a rookie, and the advance notice, or advantage, that were seeking might backfire, resulting in even tougher questions than the reporter originally had in mind. Recognizing that most reporters aren’t going to tip their hand, there are some strategies you can use to be best prepared for the interview.

First, whether or not the interview request come via text, phone or email, it is rarely something as succinct as, “I’d like to interview you (or your boss) about a story I’m writing.” More likely, the request will provide you with enough information to understand the line of questioning or at least the subject or context of the inquiry. If not, you can probe for information about the request with questions such as:

  • What, exactly, would you like to talk about?
  • What is your interest?
  • Have you talked to anyone else?
  • Do you have information about the topic? (If not, offer to provide a fact sheet or a briefing document.)

You might also offer to talk to the reporter and provide some background information before the interview. When doing this, be sure it is understood that this conversation is background only and off the record. Proceed only after the reporter acknowledges this is off the record.

Asking these questions and discussing background will ensure that you are well aware of the situation and help you know what questions to expect. In most cases, these will be the basic who, what, where, when and whys. If it’s a controversial topic, you can also expect the question made famous during the Watergate era, “what did you know and when did you know it?” Of course, the follow-up questions will be, “What did you do about it, and why?”

Having these conversations before the interview lets you anticipate the questions. Be sure, too, to prepare for the expected follow-up question(s). 

You also should never ask to see the story before it’s published. There are few requests more distasteful to a journalist than to review the story ahead of publication. The reality is you will have a good read on the direction and tone of the article based on the interview.

If all of the questions were aggressive, negative or questioning of your position, the story will not be a positive one.

You won’t need to see an advance copy to know you will need to immediately start devising a strategy to temper the news. Such tactics might include contacting stakeholders, developing counter-messaging, and seeking interview opportunities with other reporters who might take interest in the story. You may also want to contact the news outlet in question and offer a guest column or letter to the editor that can be timed to drop the day of or right after the story goes public.

If the questions are not aggressive and it sounds as if the reporter is trying to understand your responses, it will probably be a fair story.

In both instances, be sure to be ready to assist if the reporter calls with follow-up questions or clarifications as they write the story. You can also do your own follow-up a few days after the interview to see if the reporter needs anything else.

Whether it’s understanding the initial focus of the story so you can make the best decisions about the upcoming interview, or properly following up after the interview, always respect the boundaries between the journalist and your role as a representative of your organization or your client.

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