"Should I ask the reporter for their questions in advance?"

 Image: istockphoto.com

Image: istockphoto.com

"Is it okay to ask the reporter to send me their list of questions before the interview?"

I get this question at least once a week. And the answer I give is a qualified "no". 

I 'get' the impulse to want to ask the reporter for a nice list of all the questions they're going to ask you. After all, you want the interview (and resulting story) to be a success. You want to give yourself an edge. To have an early warning system for any potential surprises. Here's the problem: Getting the reporter's questions in advance is really a false security blanket that can cause more problems than it solves.

"She asked me a totally different set of questions!"

Last week, a friend who works in marketing for a national charity told me he was going to be interviewed about his organization's new social media campaign. He wanted to bounce some ideas off me. Later that day, he forwarded an email he'd received from the journalist and which included a list of nearly a dozen questions she was going to ask him during his interview.

"You have to love it when you get the questions in advance!" he wrote to me.

I wrote back: "Watch out. Her questions will change once the interview starts. Don't waste your time worrying about her questions. Worry more about crafting the story you want to tell."

The next morning, he sent me a note saying the interview had gone well. "By the way, you were right," he said. "She asked me a totally different set of questions once the interview started!" 

If my friend had spent the day obsessing over the list of questions the reporter sent him rather than crafting the story he wanted to tell, it might have been a bit unsettling when she started asking him a list of new and completely unfamiliar questions. Instead, understanding her questions would likely change, he spent those valuable hours building his story and coming up with great examples and proof points. When the interview started, he wasn't surprised by the reporter's 'new' questions. Instead, he just kept moving forward and used her questions as on-ramps for his answers.

The reporter wasn't 'out to get him'

So what's with the two sets of questions? Was the reporter trying to pull a fast one? Absolutely not. In each of her interactions with my friend, (before and during the interview), she was probably just asking the questions that came to her mind in that particular moment. Then, once he started talking, part of his first response would serve as a jumping off point for her to ask a follow-up question. Good reporters inject spontaneity and improvisation into their interviews. They ask questions on-the-fly based on the new information they're receiving. This is one big reason why it doesn't make sense to ask reporters for the questions in advance. They're only going to change once the interview starts. 

You may risk offending the journalist

If you ask a mainstream journalist for their questions before the interview, they will be very unlikely to comply. They may also be offended. The reasons are rooted in the ideals of objectivity and journalistic ethics. I've run this question by a number of journalists over the years and the majority say they're miffed when an interviewee asks them for their questions in advance.

When you enter the media relations arena, you're supposed to be able to hold your own. Asking for their questions in advance implies you don't know how the process works and you're not respecting the reporter's objectivity. Not surprisingly, this can get the process off to a rough start, which is not what any spokesperson wants.

There's a better way...

So...if it's not a great idea to come right out and ask for the questions in advance, how can you get as much information as possible to help you prepare for your interview?

During your pre-interview discussions leading up to the interview (whether by phone or email), try telling the journalist the following:

"I want to make sure I'm able to give you the information you need for your story. To help me prepare, it would be a big help if you could please give me an overview of the types of questions you'd like me to be ready to answer when we talk later today." 

Note that with this approach, you're not asking the journalist for any favours or preferential treatment. You're not asking for their entire playbook before the opening kickoff. You will, however, get some important information about where the game is going to be played.

It's also worth noting that when you base your request on the premise that you want to be able to give the reporter the information they need for their story, you're approaching the issue from their point of view (e.g. being a helpful spokesperson) as opposed to your own point of view (e.g. being defensive and control-freaky). The wording differences are subtle but important. By wording your request in this manner, you'll get some great information about the focus of the story and the approach they're likely to take, which will be more valuable than a list of questions, when you go to craft your messages. 

A word about trade media

Everything I've said so far applies to mainstream media (e.g. daily newspapers, radio and TV stations and major online outlets). When you're dealing with trade media reporters and editors, however, they can be more receptive to being asked for their questions in advance. Some may even let you see and edit your responses in draft form prior to publication.

Trade media is a fascinating channel and a very valuable way for companies to get some media coverage in a setting that entails less risk than mainstream media. I'll be doing a post dedicated to the art of mastering trade media later this fall.   

If you have any observations or experiences to share on the topic of asking reporters for their questions in advance, please leave them in the comments below. And thanks for reading!