A few weeks ago, Ilyasah Shabazz, the daughter of civil rights icon Malcolm X, was interviewed by Michel Martin on NPR about a controversial new book that claimed her father had worked as a male escort.
When confronted with that very sensitive question, Shabazz simply got up and walked out of the interview. Hearing the interview, I thought, “I sure feel sorry for her publicist.”
Anybody who has worked in the public relations industry knows that this is a major faux pas that can do irreparable damage with the media if you ever have to work with them again. It got me thinking. What are the interview nightmares that keep PR professional up at night?
Here are a few:
• A client asks to see the story before it runs. This is guaranteed to make PR professionals grind their teeth in frustration. It is common knowledge in the media that the subject of a story gets to see the story only after it’s been published. The best thing you can do is ask the reporter to read the quotes back to you to make sure they are accurate. This is something that the PR specialist needs to explain to the client before the interview.
• The interview turns ugly. Sometimes the interview subject grows annoyed and gets aggressive with the journalist, or the reporter gets annoyed and becomes combative. Making matters worse, there are some journalists who prefer a go-for-the-jugular style of interviewing, which makes for good TV. I had a client who told a reporter she didn’t like his questions and thought he was pulling her leg. The solution: preparation. PR practitioners need to screen reporters, so their clients don’t go in blind. If the interview is going to be hostile, they need to prepare their client for the worst possible questions.
• The client gives incorrect or false information. Although PR professionals have a reputation for being slippery and playing fast and loose with the truth, the PR field does have a code of ethics, and one of the tenets is being truthful. I have met many journalists who assume that PR professionals always lie, and that’s not the case. A PR specialist who gives out inaccurate information soon loses credibility with the media, which will eventually stop seeking him or her out for comment. PR professionals should stress to their clients that they never lie to the media. If your client makes a mistake, the best thing you can do is to correct it as soon as possible.
• The client goes off topic. Before any interview, a PR practitioner should sit down with his or her client and go over talking points. Clients don’t have to memorize them, but they should at least remember the points they want to convey in the interview. If the interview is done over the phone, the client can use cue cards to help remember the points. The only problem with this scenario is that inexperienced clients might get that deer-in-the-headlights look if the interview veers off topic. It’s a good idea for PR practitioners to sit in on interviews, so they can gently nudge the conversation back in the right direction. The interviewee can counter this tactic, by saying that he wants to stick to the topic at hand.
Manny Otiko is vice president of social and new media at Desmond & Louis PR. A version of this story first appeared on the blog PRBreakfastClub.