‘She’s not answering that': Tips on managing a PR phone interview

The X Factor finally lost me when it found Matt Cardle. The first I heard of Ella Henderson was Caitlin Moran’s tweet about a phone interview with the pop ‘starlet’ for the Daily Telegraph, which didn’t turn out quite as planned.

The article, by Women’s Editor Emma Barnett, touched on the fact that the 17-year-old singer had an album due out, admires Beyonce and was supposed to be promoting Disney’s ‘Safer Internet Day’. The rest – including the headline, intro, gist, guts, quotes and conclusion – instead turned on the PR management of the interview and artist.

Ella Henderson Daily Telegraph interview

The journalist was already frustrated by being put on hold after each question before receiving carefully crafted answers. Then when she asked whether the popstar was a feminist, a PR person interrupted, without introduction, and said ‘she’s not answering that’.

Ella Henderson

Before suggesting that the singer sack the PR interrupter, who of course isn’t in a position to respond to the criticism [perhaps a subject of a future post], the journalist said of Ella Henderson:

“…while she does need guidance through the manufactured pop world at the tender age of 17, what she does not need is an aggressive bloke telling her not to say whether she is a feminist or not.”

An interview is always a negotiation between what the interviewee wants to say and what the journalist wants to hear that you hope will be newsworthy enough to appear in print or online in a story at least resembling what you’d originally envisaged.

While I don’t envy or pity those operating in celebrity media relations, I wonder what these particular PR people would do differently if they could turn back the clock? Perhaps they would follow these steps…

1) To interview or not to interview?

You provide an interview with a spokesperson or figurehead to try to get more space or exposure than you would with a written press release alone. You weigh up the newsworthiness of your chosen topic, the effective use of the spokesperson’s time, the likelihood of the journalist asking questions on other areas, how your interviewee is likely to answer them and whether this, on balance, could result in a story too far removed from the one you would like to see to make it worthwhile. You discuss all of this with your potential interviewee before deciding to go ahead with an interview.

2) ‘Who always writes nice things about us?’

Your guidance would also include which journalist you’d like to offer the interview. This would depend on existing relationships, expertise in the interview topic and how the journalist has covered the person, organisation or issues before. You give the journalist a sense of what the interviewee is likely to cover and if they think it’s newsworthy, you set it up.

Now at this point, PR people in some circles may feel they can flex their muscles on what the interview will or will not cover, giving all involved a chance to decide if, on that basis, it is still worth their while. In most sectors PR people have limited power to ensure an interview sticks to the pre-agreed topic or questions and others have less power than they think (as Emma Barnett has neatly proved). If you’re worried at this stage you should probably ditch the interview and opt for a different approach.

3) Over the phone or in the flesh?

You decide to do an interview over the phone either because it saves time for all involved or you think it might give you more chance of sticking to the chosen subject. You also gain the elbow-room to nudge the interviewee in the ribs if they’ve drifted or missed an opportunity to get their point across (pointing at the relevant part of their briefing note also does the trick). If none of the above applies and you’re dealing with a complex or detailed issue that the spokesperson has time to talk through with a journalist, who would also rather do the interview in person, do it in the flesh instead.

4) ‘You mean they can ask me any question they want?’

It’s the job of the PR person to help the interviewee prepare what they want to say by focusing their mind on what they are aiming to get out of the interview, as well as anticipating questions and how their responses may be reported.

It was perfectly reasonable and predictable that a Women’s Editor of a national paper would ask a 17 year old pop singer her views on the treatment and perception of women in the music industry. Ella Henderson could have answered ‘of course I’m a feminist, aren’t all women?’, if that’s her view. It would also have been perfectly reasonable for the singer to add or instead say, ‘I’d love to perhaps meet with you to talk about that another time as it’s really important to me but today could we stick to Safer Internet Day as I’ve agreed to help make sure as many people know about it as possible? Is that OK?’

5) ‘You’re on speaker phone, can you hear us OK?’

You treat a phone interview as you would an in-person interview or conference call.  The Daily Telegraph journalist complained about the ‘army of PRs and publicists’ in the room with her interviewee and that one interrupted the interview without introducing himself. The PR person should make the phone call, introduce everyone present and make it clear if they are listening in. They should also explain why they are there and how they will contribute, i.e., ‘I’ll stay out of the way while you chat but may chip in from time to time if needed’.

Intervening in an interview is a question of judgement and can backfire. I have chipped in with supporting facts or to clarify that a particular topic is not an area within an interviewee’s remit, which I also would have stressed ahead of the interview. Although, I have seen countless articles that portray the interviewee as managed or unsure of themselves by mentioning interrupting PR people.

If following these basic steps wouldn’t have guaranteed favourable coverage for Ella Henderson in this instance, they can at least help minimise the chances of the PR approach becoming the story.

2 comments on “‘She’s not answering that': Tips on managing a PR phone interview
  1. Abigail says:

    Very well said!

  2. Intervening can absolutely backfire – and both hurt the interview and damage the reputation of the PR pro, their relationship w/ the reporter or media outlet. Training is the key; the interviewee needs to be walked through this and prepared, prepared, prepared.

    Just as important – ala ‘who writes nice things about us?’ – are the relationships we develop w/ writers, bloggers, etc. It is in bounds to prep the interview, get a sense of what they want for their audience, readers; and carefully manage that, set a few ‘friendly’ ground rules i.e. ‘she’ll talk about herself but her family didn’t choose this, they’re off limits.’ No guarantees but it may keep things on target, less need for elbowing from the publicist. FWIW.

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