Should You Ask Reporters For The Questions?
Last week’s Question of the Week asked readers to share their thoughts on this question: Should you ask reporters to see their questions prior to an interview?
Judging from the comments I heard, there’s absolutely zero consensus in the P.R. world on this issue.
Here are a few of your replies, which range from “absolutely not!” to “yes, of course!”
Kate Cohorst, Senior Writer/Editor, Notre Dame College of Arts & Letters: “No way. Asking for questions seems paranoid and makes reporters suspicious.”
Dustin Terpening: “It’s my experience that reporters are willing to share their line of questions…I’m actually kind of surprised by the notion that people think it’s offensive to ask a reporter what they might ask.”
Leila of Dynamite Public Relations: “No, you shouldn’t ask for the questions. But you can ask about the angle which often leads to the questions being offered.”
Jill Chamberlin: “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.”
Jeff Domansky, aka The PR Coach: “Color me prehistoric, but…wouldn’t that offend you, even a little, as a reporter? Why risk it?”
Anna Melendez Johnson: “Sure, why not? I would never expect the reporter to stick to the questions, but if it helps my spokesperson to prepare – it works in my organization’s favor.”
Steven Piessens: “Forget about fishing for the questions, just make sure you know what the interview is about and who’s the journalist/media.”
Krista of PR in Pink: “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.”
Blake Rhodes of Xenophon Strategies: “I have worked with clients who have demanded questions before even agreeing to the interview. As the messenger, I could feel the cold front…coming through the other end of the phone.”
Paul Nonnenmacher: “There’s nothing wrong with asking. I always advise those I’m training that the more they know…the better they’ll be able to answer those questions.”
Pat Smith of Smith Strategic Communications: “I found reporters often withheld key questions in any event and worked them into the interview.”
Chris H.: “I have never had a reporter react negatively to our request.”
Up to now, I’ve always told clients not to request questions in advance. Coming from the world of “hard news,” I always regarded questions as proprietary, something not to be shared until the moment they’re actually asked.
But I’ve sensed for some time that the rules are changing and that my “old school” view is becoming outdated. Plus, many of my clients have successfully asked reporters for questions for years.
So, after reading all of your (very smart) comments (thank you!), here’s my view:
I’m shifting from “no” to the middle road on this one. Here are a few tips that may guide your approach:
1. Explore Gently: Commenter Pat Smith put it best: “explore gently.” Rather than explicitly requesting the questions, keep doing what you’re probably already doing: Ask about the story angle, areas of interest, and whether there are any specific pieces of information the source should research prior to the interview.
2. Hard News vs. Soft News: My general sense is that hard news reporters – think Wall Street Journal or The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer – will bristle if asked for questions, whereas “soft news” reporters and some trade publications will happily comply.
3. Existing Relationships: Many of you pointed out that your relationship with the reporter should guide your decision, and you’re exactly right. If you know a reporter and he/she has no problem with sending the questions, go for it. If you don’t, I’d go back to the “explore gently” phase.
Don’t be lulled into a false sense of safety if you get the questions in advance. Reporters can still ask unexpected questions – and they will. Regardless of whether you get the questions in advance, prepare for the interview as if you’ve never seen them.
Your main messages should always reflect what you want the public to know, and shouldn’t change much depending on a reporter’s questions. Therefore, you should use the questions you receive in advance primarily to help you think through how to transition from their questions to your answers.
Related: How to Become a Better Media Guest in Three Seconds
Related: Don’t Dumb It Down. Just Make It Simpler.
I only ask for questions when the subject matter expert will not be available in time to meet the reporter’s deadline. If we get the questions, then we can respond in a fashion that allows us to have control of the message.
John – GREAT point – thanks for adding it to the blog. You’re exactly right that reporters would almost always be willing to share their questions in that situation.
I work in media relations with a large, regulatory government department. We need to know questions in advance – because the decisions made in our department affect the laws and practices of the country, it is imperative that we have thorough, accurate answers for journalists. It would not be fair to citizens of the country to have incorrect information reported in the media (about something that affects EVERYONE) because a spokesperson mis-spoke or mis-interpreted the question.
There is also a question of approval. In order for government to properly function, media responses cannot be given in a vacuum – if a question is asked and there is no pre-existing response, approval of a new response is given at the highest levels. I actually can’t just put a spokesperson in touch with media on a sticky issue because the multiple levels of approval on a given response do not allow for that level of spontaneity.
Lesley – Thank you for your comment and your insight.
I’m particularly glad you stopped by, since you’re the first person to write in from a governmental agency/department. My experience in working with government clients is exactly as you described – they are required by policy to seek approval from top officials before speaking to the press.
Would you mind answering a follow-up question? Let’s say you get the questions in advance and then arrange an interview for a journalist with a top governmental official. Let’s say it’s a live interview — radio or television, and the host varies from the pre-arranged questions. Is there a policy for what your spokespersons are supposed to do in such a situation?
Thanks again. Stop by anytime.
I had a great chat with a reporter recently. We were speaking quite candidly and he said there were two things that aggravated him. The first was when he was asked what his deadline was. Being the news, the deadline, he said, is right now. I have to say, while I understand his meaning, I also understand why people negotiate for time.
The second question he disliked was being asked for the interview questions. When people ask, he said, his answer was simply “NO!” He elaborated by saying “I don’t even know the questions!” He added, quite correctly, that a scripted interview will only produce a mediocre story. A good conversation with the interviewee on the other hand, will produce a great story. All conversations are reactive; they need to be. As PR reps it’s important that we prepare as much as we can for an interview. Asking for the angle will give you enough information and substance (generally) in order to prepare your stats/facts and to select the best spokesperson.
In that case, it would depend. For the most part, we try to connect reporters with subject matter experts. If the question that came up was within the scope of the interview, as well as within the scope of that person’s expertise, then it’s not an issue.
We don’t require that a journalist stick to a script – natural conversation is important for a good interview. They do, however, need to stick with the subject, when they are interviewing a subject matter expert.
So if a journalist commences a line of questioning that is unrelated to the scope of the interview (which is established at the outset) and does not fall within the expertise of that expert, at that point, I would interject and ask the journalist to follow-up with me after the interview with the expert. At that point, I could be in a position to either find another expert, or seek written/information answers.
Of course, this only works for a taped interview.
For a live interview, I would instruct my spokesperson beforehand (after establishing parameters with the journalist) that if the line of questioning veered, they would be best to say something like “…What I’d like to discuss today is [agreed upon subject]. [key message]”.
We might be bureaucrats, but we are not automatons. 😉
@Lesley, your “we’ll get back to you” mindset is a dangerous one and becoming risker as journalists get better at dealing with it.
When a journalist asks a question, they want the truth. The truth doesn’t change from one minute to the next, nor should it change whether a publicist prepares their staff or not.
If a broadcast journalist/presenter wants detailed information—that a government employee should know off the top of their head to competently do their job—that staff member needs to be able to answer that question confidently, without fear that it has not been “framed” by a publicist.
I’ve seen interview subjects crucified in live and taped broadcast interviews because their refusal to answer a question makes them look inept and not across their portfolio. I’ve seen staff dismissed because of it. The “James Packer” defense is a dangerous one.
It’s becoming more dangerous as it becomes more common and journalists are learning how to spin it to their advantage.
In the majority of cases, broadcast media rarely pursues interviews requiring detail – which is usually the domain of print. Broadcast media looks for comment, response and confirmation of statements or reports previously made. This is what media advisers need to prepare their staff for. This is particularly salient in government where advisers are paid by the public in the interests of the public, you/we are not political apparatchiks.
“We’ll get back to you” is going down fast. Your job is to train your staff to be confident in telling the truth, without fear or favor, so that they come across sincere and believable. For example: “That is not my are, you will need to speak to department XYZ,” is a fair response if it is true. “There has been some discussion on that but nothing has been confirmed,” is also an incredibly fair response. “I’ve seen the report but I am not at liberty to discuss the details until it is released,” can also be a true response.
There are few government responses that need to be framed by a media relations adviser. Just teach your staff to tell the truth. I’ve work on both sides of the fence and know too many advisers who feel they need to construct rigid communication intervention protocols to validate their roles; but we don’t.
A lot obviously depends on the reporter and you relationship to them, but I think the biggest problem with asking for a list of questions is that you are robbing yourself of the chance to get some important cues from the reporter that will help both of you do your jobs better. What are you hoping to get out of this interview? What information are you missing now? Ask them what they know about the topic and why they are interested. Reporters are ALWAYS on a fishing trip–but i think it’s a bit cynical to assume they’re always fishing for scandal. Unless there is one..and then, well they’re just doing their job too.
No, Mr Herbkersman, your answer is not a good one, because any seasoned reporter knows when his subject is trying to “have control of the message” and will find ways around your obstructionism.
Don’t play deadline games.
I’m engaged in such an exchange right now with a senior federal official’s office. I’ve just told the spokeswoman that I’m not going to work this way. Nothing personal, but if I don’t get cooperation, all that will mean is that that official won’t have the opportunity to have her say in the story.