Sunday, April 17, 2011

Interviews: PR versus News

As journalists, we benefit when an expert agrees to discuss some newsworthy topic with us. Whether it is a complete interview, some expert commentary, or filling in some background information to help our readers better understand some difficult subject, the addition of credible, original, third-party quotes almost always makes for a better article. What we have to also realize, is that, these experts, also have a purpose in giving us the interview.

Sometimes that purpose is simply to gain name recognition or to keep the name of their organization in the public eye. Sometimes, though, especially with people representing commercial operations, the sole purpose for granting an interview is to paint their company in a positive light for a free commercial. That's certainly their right. As journalists, though, we are not in the business of writing commercials for publication on news channels.

When the interview is giving a company a direct opportunity to refute some allegation against the company, then these PR statements can be of direct use as the official company response to some accusation or situation which casts them in a negative light. When we are asking for their expertise on a matter either not related or only peripherally related to the company in question, however, such scripted responses are of marginal use.

It is our job to cut through the company line to find real information that is of value to readers. For example, I recently had the opportunity to interview the Vice President of North American Manufacturing from the Ford Motor Company for a news article about the state of American manufacturing. He was certainly qualified to speak on the subject as the head of manufacturing for a major American company, however, his goal in agreeing to the interview was to promote the Ford Motor Company.

In arranging the interview, I was very up-front about the nature of the article for which the interview would be used. I wanted to examine the health of manufacturing in America, including the outsourcing of American jobs, the general direction of the economy, and issues relating to those topics.  The first sign that I was not going to get a truly candid interview, was that the VP, James Tetreault, had another Ford "spokesperson" on the line as well. This person was more of a PR expert along to make sure that Tetreault did not say anything of which Ford would not approve. Indeed, this person did jump in a couple of times to answer for Tetreault when I challenged his initial response.

I had initially intended the interview to be published as a Q&A piece with my questions and the relevant pieces of the interviewee's answers (edited for clarity and brevity) printed directly with a brief introduction, similar to this Q&A news article. Because of the high level of PR content, some of which was, at best, borderline in terms of being "factually accurate statements," I had to rethink my approach.

I wrote the article on the topic I originally intended, but included a couple of other credible third-party sources to refute one point made by Tetreault, and to buttress the independence of the article. However, I wrote the article in a more narrative form, using direct quotes from Tetreault, but not in a strict Q&A format. Much of the interview content turned out to be unusable for my purposes.

It is not always necessary to portray the interviewee or their company in a positive light. For example, if you happened to get an interview with the former BP CEO on the golf course shortly after the BP gulf oil well disaster, as a journalist, "You have to go beyond his statements that everything is under control and it's just a little bit of oil leaking out right now. Nothing to worry about." However, portraying an interviewee negatively may have repercussions as well.

In the case of the Ford interview I conducted, I researched some basic facts before the interview. When the VP said Ford's success in the first part of the year was due more to Ford's product assortment than to a more broad based upturn in economic conditions, I was able to counter with the fact that Ford's competitors had at least equal, and in many cases better overall sales increases during the same period. I pointed this out to him directly in the interview and included it in the article.

The use of qualified third-party experts can add significant credibility to a news article, but if you act as a shill for the interviewee's company, it can have the opposite effect.


  1. Excellent advice! I actually prefer a narrative style more, because the article is typically more well-rounded and informative. That said, a nice unbiased Q&A definitely has its worth and are a lot easier to write up.

  2. Tamara, me, too, but Yahoo! News has told me they prefer the straight up Q&A to the narrative for expert interviews and I have a Q&A News Beat dedicated to that format.

  3. That sounds like a really cool beat. I just have the more common commentary and comparison ones. I've noticed a preference on Y! for Q&A and quote roundups. Must be more reader-friendly.

  4. That is one great interview opportunity, Brad -- great advice, too.