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To probe or not to probe when a reporter requests an interview

Ed Shiller

Ed's Blog

It makes perfect sense to want to know what topics a reporter will raise in an interview so that you can properly prepare. The question is: What is the most effective way of getting that information?

The most intuitive answer, and the course of action that most media relations people follow, is to ask the reporter.

Unfortunately, as with so many other life experiences, the intuitive response is often the least effective response, and relying on what the reporter says in the pre-interview discussion could leave you unprepared for what the reporter will ask is the actual interview.

There are several reasons why you may be misled by the reporter’s responses to your pre-interview probing. For example:

• Even if the reporter genuinely accedes to your request for the topics to be covered and imparts that information, there is no way of knowing what topics or questions will be raised since questions that the reporter did not anticipate asking may come to mind as the interview progresses.

• The reporter may resent being pinned down and his or her answers to your probing may be deliberately vague. Persistent probing for more specific information may al-ienate the reporter, who rightfully believes that you are trying to exercise undue re-straint on the prerogatives of the media.

• The reporter may lie outright. A reporter investigating alleged wrongdoing or other controversial or sensitive material may not want the person to be interviewed to be warned of the topics to be covered. There are two primary reasons for this. One, con-cern that the interview may not be granted if all the cards were on the table. And two, the reporter would prefer to get a candid and unrehearsed response to probing ques-tions.

The alternative to intrusive probing is to listen and think critically. It is a virtual certainty that the reporter, when initially asking for an interview, will indicate the general topic to be covered. And if not, then a gentle probe along the lines of “can you give me an idea of what you wish to cover in the interview?” will get you the necessary information.

You can then deduce a reasonably good idea of what the reporter will raise in the interview by identifying and analyzing the newsworthy aspects of the broad (or specific, as the case might be) topic the reporter mentioned in the interview request.

If it’s newsworthy, expect a reporter to ask about it. This is neither a daunting nor time-consuming task, since identifying and analyzing current and impending newsworthy developments is part of your every-day work in communications entails.

If the interview request is framed along these lines: “Hi, I’m Jane Doe from The Star and I’d like to talk to someone about your latest financial statements,” you'd reply, “What would you like to know?”

The reporter would then ask a question, such as: “Well, when I divided the number of outstanding shares into the net earnings, the earnings per share number I get is different from that in the quarterly report. Why is that?”

And you’d answer, “It’s because the company deferred the preferred share dividend last quarter, and under GAAP, the amount of the dividend does not affect earnings, but it must be subtracted from net income for purposes of calculating earnings-per-share.”

You'd now be in the midst of an interview, which would continue until the reporter stopped asking questions.

If the reporter asked a question for which you did not have the required information, just say you'll find out and get back in whatever time you felt you would need.

If at any point in the interview, you came to believe that another spokesperson would be appropriate, so tell the reporter and explain that you’ll set up the interview. In such a case, you already have a very good idea of what will be covered in the follow up interview, and would therefore be able to adequately prepare the spokesperson.

Or, the reporter may initially request to speak with a particular individual at the organiza-tion: “Hi, I’m Jane Doe at The Star and I’d like to set up an interview with your president, John Brown.”

You would reply: “Sure, can you give me an idea of what you’d like to cover?”

And let’s say the reporter responds: “Well, actually I’m doing a feature on how Ontario’s new Not-For-Profit Corporations Act is affecting organizations such as yours and would like to get the perspective from the top.”

If you believed that the president was the appropriate person to do the Interview, say something like, “That’s great. I’ll see what I do. Is there any time that’s particularly good or bad for you?”

“Actually, the sooner the better.”

“Ok, I’ll get on it right away and will keep you posted. Is that ok?”

“Yes, that’ll be fine. I look forward to hearing from you no later than mid-afternoon.”

“No problem.”

In this case, too, you really would have sufficient information about the impending interview to prepare the CEO.

In developing your expectations of what will be covered in the interview, you're not just relying on what the reporter told you; you are also reviewing current and relevant newsworthy developments.

For example, the Not-For-Profit Corporations Act significantly expands the authority of members in non-profit organizations, giving them virtually the same rights as the shareholders in a public company. This means, for one thing, that the membership could overrule decisions made by the Board of Directors, effectively taking over strategic, and perhaps even day-to-day, control of the organization.

Because you try to keep your ear to the ground, you know that some non-profits have already responded to the new act by modifying their bylaws in such a way that current memberships would lapse, and in future, membership would be confined to the board of directors. And while you hadn`t yet come across any discussions about this either in traditional or social media, you`re pretty sure that the issue could become quite controversial. Consequently you would not only work with the CEO to develop key points regarding the new act, itself, but also to develop key points dealing with the separate, but related, issue of the organization`s membership structure and any plans to change that structure.

You also know that both the federal and provincial governments had recently indicated that they will significantly modify the model for funding some of the organization`s activities. While not directly related to the new act, the reporter may regard the act and the impending changes in government funding as signs of a paradigm shift in how non-profits will operate with respect to their governance and revenue streams. The reporter may well raise these issues in the interview, and you want to make sure that the CEO will be fully prepared.


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