What to do when an interview goes off the rails

Thoughts from PR pros.

When an interview goes off the rails

You’ve landed an interview with a journalist. You’ve prepped your client. You get into the interview … and it all falls apart as the journalist starts asking questions far outside the scope of what the interview was supposed to be.

What do you do?

This is the question I posed on LinkedIn. Dozens of communicators responded, and the answers varied widely from “stop the interview!” to “I’d do nothing” and everything in between. There was even a lively discussion about whether or not PR pros should staff interviews at all.



Here’s a sampling of the responses, lightly edited for style and brevity. Let us know in the comments how you’d handle this situation.

Sarah Mary Cunningham is vice president of publicity at Columbia Records.

If you went into PR to be everyone’s favorite or the most liked person in the room, then you made a major error. It is our job to protect the client/roster/brand and the narrative. That being said, no need for drama. A simple, “excuse me, can you please give us a moment” can go a long way.

Also, don’t forget about your pre-set up. If it is going to be a potentially contentious interview, targeted media training sessions are always helpful, and you can also negotiate a mid-interview, mic removed break. If it is a live interview, there is also the stare blankly and refuse to answer and wait it out method. Lastly, if the team isn’t ready for a curveball, then the team might not be ready for interviews.

Todd Blecher is senior director of communications at Thermo Fisher Scientific.

Your scenario is why I believe in two cardinal rules for media interviews: 1) a communicator must always be present; 2) every interview should be recorded. If the session gets off track for any reason, the communicator has a responsibility to intervene in order to reestablish focus for both the spokesperson and reporter. In the rare instance when that step doesn’t work, the communicator needs to be ready to end the session.

Monica Earle is senior public relations manager at Duolingo.

A good PR pro will have trained their spokespeople to say, “I’m not the best person to answer XYZ questions, but if you want to dig into that, our PR can help set that up.” … Now, if a spokesperson says something interesting that takes the conversation in a different direction than the initial scope of the interview, that is entirely understandable.

Brittany Dickerson is a public affairs officer at the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division.

I kick off interviews with introductions and quick ground rules that outline the discussion’s scope. If things veer off track, I read the room. Often our people can steer things back on track and I don’t need to intervene. Very rarely I step in to gently remind participants the focus of the engagement. Aviation and defense journalists are highly professional and I’m not sure I need a whole hand to count how many times this has happened.

On whether PR professionals join interviews: this will vary by organization and industry. Defense employees are trained to not discuss their work with others outside of a need-to-know basis. For this reason, media interviews can feel intimidating for professionals trying to balance providing detail and context to a journalist with security constraints… especially for those outside the C-suite who don’t work with media regularly (this is why media training is so important!) It’s our job to make our people feel comfortable working with media and our presence provides reassurance on media engagements. We also assist on the supportive stuff (sending photos and captions, follow-ups, etc.) I agree with others below that we should never make ourselves part of the conversation.

Gabriel De La Rosa Cols is a principal at Intelligent Relations.

This might be a controversial take, but I don’t usually join those kinds of meetings.

Journalists don’t like it when a PR professional joins, and I know for a fact that they HATE it when we interject.

We are not babysitters; it signals the wrong message, like our client has something to hide.

I’d instead provide those tools to the client during our media-prepping sessions.

I’ve learned the hard way that being proactive and overpreparing is always the best strategy in PR.

Ruben Rodriguez is senior manager at Casetify.

Anything can happen during an interview. And assuming you’re sitting in it, which you always should, PR managers do have the ultimate responsibility of generating the best possible environment for a media engagement. It’s simply our job. Therefore, in the right way, at the right time, while minimizing all participants’ discomfort, we need to clarify misunderstandings or otherwise re-conduct the interview, of course to portray the company in the desired light, but also towards the media’s fulfillment of the journalist initial interest. If we’re not able to do the latter, we should have rejected the interview.

Andrew Graham is a fractional communications leader.

On-record press interviews are all about reading the room. In general, I view media interviews as open conversations and when reporters ask questions, whoever’s there to answer them should respond truthfully and candidly.

If an interview were to go way off the rails, then I’d request to take it off record on background. If that request were denied, then it’d be a signal the reporter wasn’t dealing in good faith and I’d end the discussion.

And if an interview were to go slightly off the rails, then I’d interject and slow things down by asking the reporter to clarify their question or give examples. “We don’t know” or “we don’t have the standing to address that question” are perfectly fine responses in that instance, because they’re functionally useless as direct quotes.

Lucy Screnci is PR manager at Jane.app

I would jump in and ask for clarification on the intent of the new angle the journalist is pursuing. Then I would kindly ask to steer back to the original topic and request we set up another conversation to discuss the new/different angle.

Jesse Granger is director of communications for Blupeak.

Nothing. We’re not their handlers or lawyers. We also shouldn’t assume we can shut down a line of questioning from a journalist because we don’t like it. If the exec has been prepared properly, they should know how to …

    • Deflect questions that aren’t appropriate for them to respond to (speculation or outside their subject matter expertise).
    • Bridge back or refocus the conversation to the agreed-upon topic.
    • Go in with a strategy knowing the story they want to tell and the outcome they’d like to achieve from the engagement.

And frankly, if a journalist insists on going way off topic and refusing to meet the executive on their terms, they’re probably blowing their chance at a good story with a unique perspective, burning a bridge with a potential source and wasting everyone’s time.

Tim Trudell is communications partner at the Electric Power Research Institute.

You calmly and assertively redirect the conversation.

But it also depends on what’s being asked and if the person being interviewed is a public figure. When reporting, I’ve had to ask a governor about something totally off topic because that was his only public appearance that day.

Hopefully though — if you’re in that position both your CEO or “principal” trusts you to step in, and if you’ve done your homework and built rapport with the reporter — there should be a level of trust and mutual respect there as well.

You are in that room for a reason, feel empowered to speak up — but be wise about timing and tone.

Michael Wood is Associate director, Global News & Communities for EY.

Mute the phone, assuming the interview is a call, and advise executive about staying on topic and broadcast key messages. In some cases, when the reporter finishes with questions planned for the topic, it is not unusual to seek opinions on issues that he/she believes may be a subject matter expert. Then, it is justified if the new line of questions pertain to a different story or background. It may be an opportunity to position the executive as a thought leader depending on the topic, media outlet and other factors.

Emily Porter is chief growth & marketing officer for Havas Formula.

Always protect your client. A good PR person will politely interrupt with: “Apologies we were under the impression that the focus of your interview was on X,Y,Z – had we known you were interested in Q we would have asked one of our other spokespeople to join. Would you like to set up another interview?”

Laura C. Morgan is a freelance journalist and talent booker.

I made a mistake in my early 20s as a very green PR person and interrupted an interview to protect the client and it made it worse. You have to remember if you do that, your intervention will also be on the record. I think a firm redirect usually works nicely, but you have to balance the risk.

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