Last week, before Washington Nationals 19-year-old phenom, Bryce Harper, dismissed a Toronto reporter’s question about which Canadian beer he would celebrate a big hit with by saying, “that’s a clown question, bro,” you could hear one of the team’s media relations representatives stepping in to close down the line of questioning. This brings the question, when is the right time for communications professionals to interject themselves into an interview to assist interviewees in a tough situation?
Having stood in and monitored locker room media scrums for 16 years, there is a right time and method to step in, but there is also wrong time and method.
In this particular instance, the Nationals’ director of baseball media relations, Mike Gazda, handled the situation appropriately for five reasons.
Now, when is it a bad time to interject yourself into an interview? I’ve found two examples when two public relations representatives became part of the story for their actions.
During a live interview with Tim Russert of “Meet the Press” in 2004, former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s staff member Emily Miller appears to have moved the camera off the secretary in an attempt to end the interview.
Mike Elk, a reporter from In These Times, recently pressed charges against Honeywell external communications director Rob Ferris for his actions during his attempts to ask the company’s CEO Dave Cote during a Washington, D.C., event.
In both of these situations, Secretary Powell and Cote are well trained to deal with questions from the media, including potentially inflammatory questions. If both of the interviewees were left to answer the questions without “help” from their communications staffs, they most likely would have handled the situation with dexterity and there wouldn’t have been a news story.
In Secretary Powell’s case, you can tell by his comments, especially “Emily, get out of the way,” that he was not pleased with the situation. As communications professionals, our job is to help our spokespeople look as good as possible and in this case it made the secretary look terrible.
One way to make sure that you as a pr pro become part of the story is to interrupt a live interview. Prior to interviews, your job is to prepare the spokesperson for the tough questions so you don’t have to interrupt interviews. As you can see from the Harper situation, even interrupted taped interviews will air but generally don’t draw the attention that a truncated live interview does.
While there have been occasions that pr pros have wanted to forcefully remove microphones or cameras, this is a major no-no. Obviously, Ferris made the Honeywell story even bigger then it would have otherwise warranted and now he faces charges. Remember what your mother said, “Keep your hands to yourself.”
If you’re going to interrupt an interview, you better make sure that there is a good reason to do so and to do it as politely and respectfully as possible.
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