NBC spat offers lessons on preparing clients for big interviews

Hollywood super agent Ari Emanuel bristled at questions Brian Williams asked during an interview. Here’s how to ensure you client doesn’t feel like Ari after meeting with the press.

The softball interview is under attack.

Just landing an interview with an important figure is not enough to get a credibility boost. National news reporters are expected to ask tough questions, and do so without upsetting the interview subject or the handlers. It’s a tough needle to thread, but if they fail, the reporters risk getting pilloried on social media.

NBC’s Brian Williams, apparently all too aware of the potential criticism, purposefully strayed from a discussion with the Emanuel brothers—Hollywood mogul Ari, doctor and author Ezekiel, and Chicago Mayor Rahm—about Ezekiel’s new book, “Brothers Emanuel: A Memoir of an American Family” and broached edgier topics during an interview for last Friday’s “Rock Center” broadcast.

Ari Emanuel, who is usually described as a Hollywood super agent (he’s the inspiration for the Ari Gold character on HBO’s “Entourage”), reportedly said Williams was acting “like it was ‘Meet the Press.'”

Several tough questions in the mostly breezy interview should have been the brothers’ expectation, given the media’s criticism lately for softball interviews. “60 Minutes” reporter Steve Croft is taking heat over his sit-down with President Obama earlier in the year. The Atlantic called it “an embarrassing failure” for Kroft and “60 Minutes.”

What’s surprising with the Williams/Emanuel interview is the response by Ari Emanuel, co-CEO of the William Morris Endeavor. He was asked during the interview about his “scorched earth” reputation in Hollywood.

After the interview and before it was aired, the New York Post reported that Ari had sent a strong letter to NBC objecting to the contentious line of questioning. The focus was to be on Ezekiel’s book about the family and growing up together. Ari also reportedly confronted NBC Chief Executive Steve Burke when he was on the “SNL” set with his client Justin Timberlake.

Having prepped clients for national interviews, I know that one must establish the expectation that not every question is going to follow a pre-approved script. That doesn’t make for good journalism or good television. But there’s a fine line between asking the hard question(s) and seeking ratings.

A local television station in Denver, for instance, was taken to task for repeatedly asking the same question to the state governor. After the third time the reporter asked it, the governor snapped, calling it a “stupid question” and cutting the reporter off from asking any more questions. Most of the more than 800 comments on the station’s Facebook page supported the governor’s outburst.

Ari Emanuel, on the other hand, really had no reason to lose his cool and try to strongarm NBC. No doubt, at least two of the brothers—Ari and Rahm—are involved in controversial issues and that’s what makes them intriguing and successful. Any good journalist should be expected to ask tough questions.

To help a client prep for a national interview, assuming that the interview makes sense from an issues management perspective, here are a couple of tips:

1. Prepare key messages. These are the crucial points you want to communicate during every media opportunity. In crafting your key messages, ask yourself: What would you like the story’s headline or teaser to be?

2. Anticipate the hard questions. In advance, think through potential questions you might be asked, and consider how you might respond.

3. Conduct a dry run. If you know you’re going to be in a situation in which you’re likely to be asked tough questions and you have time to prepare, ask a colleague or friend to ask you the questions you anticipate beforehand. Even better, get your PR firm to record a mock interview. Remember not to be intimidated by a hardball question. Look upon it as an opportunity to get your point across.

Gil Rudawsky heads the crisis communication and issues management practice at GroundFloor Media in Denver. He is a former reporter and editor. Read his blog or contact him at grudawsky@groundfloormedia.com.

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