Questions that journalists will ask you and how to avoid being caught out

Journalists are generally quite confident and they know what they need from a story, and often how to get it. That can be intimidating, and immediately put a subject on the back foot – which can be frustrating and intense for both parties involved.

However, as a communications professional your story or campaign can gain vital traction from simple meetings with a journalist that result in the story you need. The importance of combining preparation with thinking on your feet and not always assuming the worst cannot be underestimated.

This piece looks at two scenarios. The first is when a PR professional/press officer/marketer approaches a journalist with the outline of a story, probably via email.

The second is when that professional has agreed to put a member of the public in touch with a journalist, and wants to prepare the person for the interview. On both occasions I’ve created a few questions that might occur, via email and/or phone, and how to deal with them.

If you are a PR professional

The pitch: So you’ve constructed a basic pitch of an idea and the journalist has this in their mind.

In the tough 21st Century newsroom environment the writer will have a mental checklist of what’s needed from a piece, and although a local writer may not have the time to dig as deeply into the story as they might have done 20 years ago, they still may have a few basic requirements and possible queries if there are any elements missing. If you’re calling them the very first question may be…

“Can you email me?” Even though your telephone call is good-intentioned, sadly the busy journalist probably doesn’t have time for an extensive chat and will want you to precis your call into an easily manageable email.

The Solution: Make sure it’s ready, with the leading angle at the top.

“Sorry, do I know you?” There’s a right and a wrong way of approaching a journalist with the initial pitch. Out of the blue, ‘pally’ sounding pitches will often just leave journalist confused and probably fairly cynical.

The solution: Some light-hearted chattiness is OK but, in the main, keep the pitch professional and preferably free of jargon, with the relevant information at the start of the piece. Keep it short.

Kisses at the bottom of the email; chatty language and unnecessary banter is risky, although it might work. For example, if you’ve found out where the journo originates from, or their football team, you might just be able to sneak a bit of hilarity.

If you’re approaching on the phone, you’ll be able to gauge the tone of the conversation a lot better.

“Is this definitely correct?” To the cynical journo if it’s ‘too good to be true’, it often actually is. Therefore, if you’re trying to sell something that is incorrect or exaggerated you might be picked up quickly, and once that moment of trust is broken it can never be recaptured. Examples include:

*Error – “He’s the only man in his seventies to climb Mount Everest”

*Assumption – “No-one has ever walked from Dundee to Dubrovnik before”

*Hyperbole – “Bradford is a city of TV haters” (based on a poll of five people)

The solution: Either try to find a stronger selling point, or back up your claims. Have you checked and double-checked the facts? Is there a better way of phrasing things to eliminate any doubtful information?

“Have you got any photos/video?”

How many stories go on a website without any prominent pictures? We’re now living in a social media world and as we know, content with relevant images gets far more engagement than content without – 94% more views according to this Hubspot piece.

We are visual creatures and we like to see who and what we’re reading about. Most news sites now look for video footage as a bonus.

For example, let’s imagine you’ve found out about someone who’s found a rare stash of Roman coins near their home. A picture of the person is not enough – we need the coins as well (see here for an example) and preferably where they were found, how they were found, the hole, and a picture of the ancient king/senator if possible!

coins 

The solution: Either do the pictures yourself, or agree to pass on details to the subject for them to contact the journalist. They needn’t be award-winning photographs – just a range of high-resolution pictures. Video is something completely different, and not all journalists will need it, but a minute-long interview piece in simple Mpeg4 format recorded on a smartphone can’t hurt as a selling point. 

“Can we speak to anyone?” You may have a preferred angle for the piece, but a news/lifestyle site might have a different thought and might wish to explore a specific angle. Quotes, in particular, are often more emotive if they are spoken rather than written. There are dangers – see the section below – but a lot of advantages in putting across a story in someone’s own words rather than a staged quote.

A journalist might also wish to go and get their own pictures, and the best way of arranging times/locations is to go through the subject themselves rather than messing around in a chain of emails.

The Solution: You could pass on any relevant questions to your subject to email. Or, if the interview subject is really not confident, you could agree for everyone to meet up so that the PR person can advise. More likely you’ll be able to make them aware of the questions they’re likely to be asked and prepare them adequately.

“Can I see the original statistics/data?” Journalists will check facts – don’t just pluck statistics out of the air. If you’re putting forward a piece for consideration that’s based on data you’ve harvested, then these should be watertight.

The solution: If you’re confident in your data, you could legitimately send it to a journo in raw form, with a few suggested headlines. In fact, many newspapers are requesting this nowadays rather than asking marketers/press officers/PR to write it themselves. Don’t make assumptions. And know your way around Excel – there are plenty of cheap courses.

If you are preparing an interview subject for a piece…

So, following the pitch, a journalist has agreed to talk to the subject. Success! You want to give that subject a few pointers on which questions to expect, and how to prepare. Here’s a few questions that your subject might face, and possible solutions/explanations to put forward:

“Tell me what happened”: This is a simple request for the subject to put the story in their own words – it saves multiple questions and lets them go at your own pace.

It means that they can dictate the flow of the interview from the start, although be prepared for offshoot questions and interruptions or leading questions during the conversation. But the subject is the boss and doesn’t need to say anything they don’t want to. 

Personal details: Height, age, and even weight are all possible questions that might add a different angle to a piece. They won’t normally be asked unless they’re immediately relevant – for example, they each might be asked of an athlete.

Personal details also include hobbies; take a look at this Spalding Guardian front-pager and note the details of Ken Bird’s career as a clockmaker and service in the Armed Forces; neither piece of information are strictly necessary, but both add depth and interest to Mr Bird as a person.

spalding 

“Are you married?/do you have children?” Have you ever wondered why a headline or introductory paragraph starts with a ‘mother/father’ in story rather than ‘man/woman’? There’s more information and more depth to the description – people want to know things like this.

Most of the time answering honestly is the best policy. If a subject doesn’t want to answer, they can always say: “I don’t think they’d want to be identified. It’s nothing against you…”

“Do you have any photographs?” (see above). It’s usually an innocent request to boost a story with no ulterior motive, but remember that the interviewee is the one with the power – they shouldn’t have to give a pic if you don’t want. That said, journalists might check social media at a later date. So be prepared for…

“Are you on social media?” It’s not usually anything to worry about, and will probably only be asked if it’s relevant to the story; for example, if the interviewee is raising money for charity.

One footnote to this – if they’ve ever tweeted anything that directly contradicts the story being spoken about, or if they’ve ever done anything to be ashamed of and it’s on social media, then be careful.

For example, if they’ve tweeted scathing criticism of Labour in 2012 and now they’re running as a Labour councillor, eyebrows will be raised. The best way to avoid it is to advise them to delete the post.

“How did you feel?” Stories thrive on drama and emotion and a writer will be looking for this. Be careful in the words used, as these might make the headline. Below is an example of a statement in the middle of an emotional speech on the front page of The Kerryman, that – taken on its own and turned into a headline – makes the speaker seem ridiculous. Advise the interviewee to choose the words with which they feel comfortable, and not be afraid to correct themselves.

kerryman 

“What do your parents/partner think of that? “Are they present at the interview? If so, do they need to be named? Does the question imply that they should be delighted/disgusted/surprised?

99 times out of 100 there’s nothing to worry about and the journo is asking simply to get a more complete view of the story, so the interviewee should answer freely. A way for the subject to dampen the enthusiasm is to say that the relatives don’t know about it/don’t care about the incident/story, or that they feel the same way about it as the subject does. 

“Is there anything else to add?” Don’t be scared of this question as it gives the chance to bring up something that is important, but has not yet been touched upon. However, there is no obligation to add anything.

Simply saying “not really, I think we’ve covered everything” will usually round off the interview for a subject, although they should always be on their guard for anything else that is said after the interview officially finishes…because if it’s of interest you can bet they’ll be asked about it.

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