Question Of The Week: February 1, 2011
When working with reporters, is it unprofessional to request to see their questions before an interview?
I always thought so, but many of my clients have been employing this practice successfully for years – and many reporters have been willing to comply. If so many reporters are willing to share their questions, I can’t help wondering whether or not I’m just “old school” for not asking?
So here’s this week’s question of the week:
Should You Request To See a Reporter’s Questions Before an Interview?
If so, when? If not, why not? And if you’ve done so before, how have reporters reacted to your request?
Please leave your answer in the comment section below. And please share this link with your social networks – I’d love to hear the opinions and experiences of as many people as possible.
I’ll highlight a few of your comments on the homepage later this week.
February 7, 2011: Here’s The Answer to the Question of the Week: Should You Ask Reporters For the Questions?
My own practice is not to ask for the reporter’s questions, but to explore gently the reporter’s story focus, so as to brief the person to be interviewed. This may require more preparation for the interview as the range of potential questions might be broad.A lot of time and effort can be put into preparation only to find the reporter is seeking simple information readily available in the first place.
Recently, I worked for an organization that required questions in advance. In the particular circumstances it worked well. It also facilitated sending written responses by email when an interview was simply neither possible nor advisable. But I found reporters often withheld key questions in any event and worked them into the interview. If I was facing circumstances similar to this organization, I would ask for questions in advance.
Some of the things I might take into consideration:
– how sensitive is the topic and how much is at risk
– how dispersed the authority to approve a position of the organization (how many key decision makers need to sign off, e.g., political, civil service, subject experts, policy, legal)
– the history with the reporter, i.e., has the reporter maintained neutrality on the topic or taken an adversarial position and demonstrated bias, inaccuracy or distortion in reporting responses
Pat – Thank you very much for leaving such a thoughtful response. Barring breaking news, I will likely run some of the answers on the homepage this Thursday. I look forward to sharing your comments with the blog’s readers!
This is definitely a tricky question, but I believe it depends on the relationship you have with the reporter.
Is this a reporter you have worked with in the past? If so, was the final write-up fair and balanced? If your answer is no to either of these, you may consider asking for “guide questions” in order to get an idea of what the focus of the interview will be.
On the flip side, if you have an understanding of the reporters writing style and you have built a solid association with them, requesting to see the questions prior to the interview is probably not needed. In fact, for this situation, asking for questions may damage the relationship as it shows you may not trust them.
Bottom line, the relationship between the two parties is crucial and will ultimately give you the answer you are looking for.
Chris – Thanks very much for your comments. One follow-up question: How have reporters reacted to your request for questions? Have they generally cooperated, or do some refuse?
I’ve asked reporters what their questions will focus on in advance. That’s usually only when I’m doing a live radio or TV interview. I don’t bother asking what the questions will be when it comes to a taped or newspaper interview. Most of the time I can generally guess what questions they’ll ask, so getting the questions in advance isn’t really necessary.
It’s my experience that reporters are willing to share their line of questions because they want a good interview just as much as you do.
Dustin – Thanks for your smart insight. I’m really glad I’ve opened this one up to the blog’s readers, mostly because I can’t help shake the feeling that I may be hanging on to “old school” advice on this one.
I tend to slant towards the “old school” on this topic. As in any business, dealing with the media is all about relationships.
I have worked with clients who have demanded questions before even agreeing to the interview. As the messenger, I could feel the cold front that’s covering most of America today coming through the other end of the phone. Needless to say, the journalist felt put off and in many cases even considered canceling the interview request. Often I had a relationship with those media members and they knew that this was a specific request by my client and knew that it wasn’t my modus operandi.
When an interview request is made, I reach out to the reporter and ask what the topics are going to be so that my clients and I can be prepared. During this conversation (yes, the personal touch helps), you can usually understand the tone of the interview which allows you to assemble your interview strategy.
When preparing the strategy, you also need to have a sense of what types of stories that reporter usually covers as well as current issues that may pertain to your client. You can never prepare enough, because the alternative can cost you a month’s time handling damage control.
While I usually subscribe to the “old school” way of handling this topic, I believe that there are times when it might be appropriate to ask for the questions. Those times would include: a client who does not much experience with the media, a legal situation or how sensitive the topic is.
Additionally, I think that it’s always good practice to set ground rules prior to interviews and prepare your client on ways to effectively and gracefully move away from questions that aren’t within the bounds of those ground rules.
Absolutely agree that the relationship between (or lackthereof) the reporter and the person arranging the interview is a key factor in whether or not to ask for the questions ahead of time.
Generally, a simple, “She (or he)asked what topics/questions to expect so that she (or he) can be prepared and helpful,” will prompt at least a casual response that is telling.
Equally important: once you know the topic, frame questions in the most candid, often abrasive, way you can and privately put them to the client. My motto: expect the worse and hope for the best. There should be no surprises. Usually works.
Blake and Jill – Thanks to both of you for your thoughtful comments. The theme of “relationships” between source and reporter is emerging here as an important one, and will certainly be included in my Thursday write-up on this topic.
Have you ever had a reporter plainly say “no,” or do they generally go along with your request?
Brad – I have never had a report react negatively to our request. Sometimes though, instead of a list of questions, we will receive an outline of topics that the reporter would like to cover. Although it would have been better to see the actual questions if we do not have a longstanding relationship with the reporter, it still allows us to prepare a briefing document with speaking points for our spokesperson.
Brad, good question. Color me prehistoric, but three thoughts:
1. Wouldn’t that offend you, even a little, as a reporter? Why risk it?
2. It shows lack of confidence. Far better to ask “what’s the focus?” and “who else are you talking to?” fairer questions to help you respond
3. Be prepared. With prep, knowledge, you should be able to handle most Qs.
Thx for asking the Q. The responses have been interesting and surprising.
I’m curious; to those of you who think it’s better not to ask a reporter what they’re questions are, have you ever tried? Or you just assume that it’s rude and insulting so you don’t?
The funny thing is, it’s usually the reporters that I’ve never worked with that I end up asking what they’re looking for. I have great relationships with the reporters I work with on a routine basis – there’s no need to worry about what they might ask.
I’ve never had a reporter decline an interview or act offended. Then again, I’ve never said, “Give me your questions or else.” You still have to be tactful when you ask what they’re looking for.
I’m actually kind of surprised by the notion that people think it’s offensive to ask a reporter what they might ask. While I think it might be going a little far to request the list of questions, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to get a general idea of what they’re going to ask.
Dustin – Fair question, and I’m glad you asked it. I’m eager to hear responses to that question as well.
I’m guilty as charged – because I’ve generally thought the question inappropriate, I didn’t ask (I would ask about general topic of the interview, but not about the questions). But that may not be the right approach, so I’m glad you’re asking challenging questions.
I may hold my follow-up story for early next week to allow more time for people to weigh in. Thanks again!
I think Pat hit it right on the head, “explore gently.” The key is preparation and patience. Knowing what kinds of stories the reporter/producer has done in the past, and keeping them talking as much as possible while you are setting up the interview to try and feel out what direction they are going in. Too often I hear from other media people that they do not have that kind of time. I suggest they make the time, because it is quicker to set it up right than clean it up later.
I do a lot of health information PR and that is “sometimes” an area where journalists are sent to cut their teeth. Often I find reporters coming to me not realizing how complicated “just another story on stroke prevention” can get. I sometimes get push back on getting questions out of them, but a few well placed technical details usually has them asking me to look at their questions.
The best tool in the kit is the “I’m here to help YOU” attitude – no matter how benign or toxic the topic. We are only as successful as the positive imagine we can get out so bending over backward really pays off.
I just wish I had a more positive outlook on the subject of staffing interviews. UGH!
Great discussion, Brad! From the comments so far, I can see the pro’s and con’s of asking for questions in advance.
Since I work in pharmaceutical and healthcare PR, I find that the trade reporters I have built relationships with are used to sending Q’s in advance of interviews. If not, I may discuss with them what their focus or perspective on the piece is. That’s more so my clients can have all the necessary information readily available for the interview. We often do scenario planning as well and draft the good, the bad and the ugly of potential media Q’s for most topics.
I think a lot depends on the relationship with the reporter and the timing for the interview (immediate vs. long lead). If I ever asked and the reporter refused, I wouldn’t be likely to press for questions in advance, so as to maintain a good working relationship with that source. There are numerous other preparation tactics that PR folks can deploy, as previous commenters have raised here.
Good thinking, but don’t forget to brief the journalist. Journalists don’t have time anymore to do a lot of research themselves. Believe me, most of the time they will appreciate you give them a short briefing on the background, spokesperson bio and facts & figures (no commercial talk please!).
Forget about fishing for the questions, just make sure you know what the interview is about and who’s the journalist/media.
Please keep in mind Print and TV/Radio interviews are different. The difference is timing. The briefing moment for TV & Radio is often very close to the interview deadline. Print is easier to prepare in depth. That’s why you need to focus for TV/Radio on preparing soundbites and key Q&A’s.