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Never Give Interviews Alone

Every interview has the potential to help or hurt you or your organization. That’s why you should have a staff member join you every time you give a journalist an interview.

Journalists often don’t like it when people they interview have a witness in the room taking notes. Some like it even less when you make your own recording of the conversation. Somehow, many believe it is their exclusive right to record what is said in an interview. They resent having someone “looking over their shoulder.”

Whatever they think, reporters are wrong to assume you don’t have the right to protect your interest by taking notes or recording your discussion.

Ask a senior communications professional to join you for every interview, whether in person, over the phone, or on a digital teleconference. The staff member should take complete notes. They are an important resource should you need to correct reporting inaccuracies.

Record the Interview

Notes are good, but a recording is better. Tell the reporter you are doing it. If you are sitting with a journalist, they will see your smartphone in use. If connecting remotely, just advise them that you are making a recording for your records.

If you’ve decided to grant a television interview, especially when meeting with an investigative journalist, bring your own video camera and set it up to capture both you and the reporter, from the moment the crew arrives to the moment they leave.

If a journalist objects to your plans to make a recording, or to having a witness in the room, or both, then postpone, or cancel the interview, until they agree to your terms.

Interviews are Optional

There are no laws requiring you to grant interviews, only laws protecting public access to government records. If you find yourself in a stand-off over these protective measures, cancel the in-person interview. Instead, tell the reporter you’ll respond to their questions in writing.

Government officials must remember that notes, smartphone audio files, and video camera recordings are subject to public records laws. Avoid adding editorial comments to these files lest they become interesting fodder for the story.

Whatever form of “interview insurance” you choose, make certain to never give an interview without making a record of your comments for later reference. This record can be invaluable if a dispute develops over what was said or who said it. Even if your record shared with a journalist’s editor fails to result in a correction, the material can be shared with your superiors, partners, or supporters to make sure they know the truth.

Robert Johnson is the Strategic Communications Officer at Riester Public Affairs in Washington, D.C. He also is an adjunct professor of communication at American University. This article is excerpted from a new book he wrote for the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, “A Communications Playbook for Public Officials,” due for release Summer 2022.