One of the pieces of advice I’ve seen public relations people offer during my media training sessions is that an interviewee should ignore the journalist’s questions. Whatever point you want to make, they say, make it, regardless of what the reporter asks.
It’s difficult to know what to say in those circumstances. The PR operative in those circumstances appears not to have realised that their advice actually amounts to “be really, really rude to journalists”. These would be the journalists who are fully at liberty to ignore you if we don’t think your comments will help our readers.
It starts, I believe, when people observe how politicians conduct themselves. David Cameron, for example, is noted for answering the first question he hears and then walking away from an interview while a follow-up is still being asked. He’s made his electorally-sensitive point, he moves on.
There’s a problem with adopting this strategy for most of us, however. The journalist is at liberty to ignore your irrelevant comments, not come back to you, ever, and go elsewhere when he or she needs, say, a recruitment agency comment, or a software developer comment. The only circumstances under which you can be sure you won’t alienate one of us is when we have no choice and you’re the only option.
To illustrate the point, there is only one person who can give me an interview on being the leader of a party winning an unexpected UK General Election victory in 2015 – so David Cameron can treat us how he wants. We have nobody else to talk to if we want to interview the Prime Minister. If I need to interview an ex-Beatle who co-composed almost all the tunes there is only one person in the world who has the final yes or no (I have no reason to believe McCartney is anything other than fine with interviews, by the way).
For the rest of us it’s a matter of compromise. You can put your point in any business discussion and an interview is no exception. I come to you because you are an expert in your company’s field. But please, don’t ignore the journalist’s questions. Answer the point but then come back to your own agenda – or frame an answer like “I’ll answer that question, but a more important point facing my clients is…” – and then don’t forget to come back to it.
Think of it as if we were a customer. Your client can go elsewhere if they wish, so your job is to make them want to buy from you and come back. Engaging with a journalist is less salesy but it’s a similar process. If you give me quotes I believe will engage my readers, I’m going to want to use them and come back when I need someone with your expertise again.
Journalists want their questions answered but we’re not stupid, we understand you’ll want to make your point too. Just don’t take the advice I’ve seen from a handful of PR people and ignore the substance of our questions – it looks arrogant and unhelpful, and it won’t serve you in the end.