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 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.