Should PIOs Sit In On Interviews?

How many people should sit in on an interview?

I recently had an interesting Twitter “conversation” about whether public information officers (PIOs) should be allowed to sit in on interviews between reporters and researchers. Some good points were raised, and I thought I’d talk about it a little here.

In my opinion, there is no need for me to sit in on an interview between a reporter and a researcher. The researchers I work with are all grown men and women who are quite capable of handling themselves. Furthermore, the researchers know more about the subject of the interview than I do. I bring very little to the table. [Note: I am a PIO for a university with an active research program. I do not work for an industry organization, a federal agency or a private company. This influences my opinion, since PIOs at those types of institutions are, generally speaking, much more likely to want to sit in on interviews, for a variety of reasons.]

However, there are times when I do sit in on interviews. This is usually because the researcher has asked me to. My role in these situations is to provide moral support for the researcher. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with my being there, as long as I don’t interject and cut off the researcher or the reporter.

Sometimes, my presence is actually beneficial to the reporter. If questions come up that the researcher can’t answer, I can sometimes connect the reporter to other researchers who might be able to help. I can also help reporters find (and access) university facilities that can be used for photographs or video footage to accompany the story. But my role – small as it is – ends there. To be clear: I do not answer questions unless they are directed to me. The reporter did not show up to interview me.

What Should Reporters Do?

The face you make when you find out the PIO is sitting in on the interview.

The Twitter conversation I mentioned was kicked off by a question from reporter Richa Malhotra, who asked whether a reporter should comply if a PIO insists on sitting in on an interview and recording it. [Note: full Storify of the Twitter conversation is available here.]

Why not? If the PIO doesn’t interrupt the interview, it shouldn’t pose a problem. And if the PIO is recording the same conversation that you’re recording, that shouldn’t pose a problem either.

I know it’s not an ideal situation, but it can be the price of admission to talking with a source. In the worst case scenarios, the presence of a PIO can make some researchers clam up, which stinks. But at least you have a chance at getting something out of them. If you can find a way around the PIO, go for it. If not, take what you can get.

Sometimes the PIO will ask for questions in advance. This is understandable, if annoying. When I was a reporter – and even now, when I interview researchers about their work – I never had a prepared list of questions before an interview. I might have two or three general questions to begin the conversation, but then I go where the interview leads me – sometimes to some very surprising places. So, if you’re asked for questions in advance, I’d recommend sending them a list of short, general questions. The only exception here is if they are asking the reporter for questions to make sure they’ve got the right people at the interview. If the interview stems from a paper about “big data” and hurricane prediction, they’ll want to know if you want to focus on the computer science, the meteorology, or both.

Lastly, I urge PIOs to inform reporters about the conditions of the interview well in advance. It’s disconcerting and impolite to blindside a reporter with a bunch of requirements at the last minute.


6 thoughts on “Should PIOs Sit In On Interviews?

  1. I suppose there are occassions when it is appropriate but in my journalistic career I never had a PR or Comm person sit in during an in-person interview for radio or TV. If they asked to be in the interview space, my answer was always no. They were always invited to sit in the control room and watch the interview take place. Phone interviews of course were out of my control as the interviewer. The single most irritating thing however were guests who insisted on a speaker phone and it was clear that there was another person on their end providing crib notes or advice. In a live interview that is a mistake on their part and if it is taped sorry, not my job to edit out your hesitations and whispers. (we discouraged speakers phones as it was usually poor quality anyway)
    In my role now as the Comm person with a not-for-profit science funding agency my feelings haven’t changed and are similar to yours. If our staff or researchers are being interviewed they know their stuff and should be given free rein to explain. We may talk in advance on how to keep it suitable for a specific audience but no need to have me on hand. As for filling in bits about the organization, if the interviewer needs more, they will call.


  2. Rich Sustich

    Firstly, I agree that the researchers being interviewed are the ones who know their stuff and should obviously be the focus of the interview.

    But it has been my experience that on occasion, an interviewer may stray and ask a question about the organization rather than the research, and in those instances, the researcher may not be prepared to respond. I have seen this come up several times when the researcher is part of a specialized unit such as an NSF Science and Technology Center. In these instances where the research receives significant government funding, we typically have the Managing Director of the Center sit in to provide the Center’s perspective. As a Center Managing Director, I’ve found that the best way to handle these situations is to reach out to the reporter prior to the interview and brief him/her before the researcher interview. That then keeps the interview focused on the research. I also offer to provide followup information as may be necessary after the interview.


  3. I (a PIO for a college within a larger university) typically do not sit in on interviews unless requested by the researcher. I find that good preparation sets both the reporter and researcher up for a better interview. I may ask questions of the reporter to clarify the interview/questions ahead of time and will often review the topic area or talking points with the researcher ahead of time, providing coaching (as needed) if questions come up about the institution.


  4. Agreed on that last point, David. Litigation and liability issues are a completely different animal — and one I rarely have to deal with in regard to promoting research findings (for which I am thankful).


  5. Pingback: [BLOCKED BY STBV] Reporters Are Having Problems Reaching Government Researchers – and That’s a Problem › Communication Breakdown

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