Asking for copy approval at the end of an interview creates a problem for a number of reasons. These have all been well covered in some great posts by the likes of Jessica Twentyman, Michael Dempsey and Guy Clapperton, who have summed it up much better than I can, so here I’ll just state the obvious (sorry).
Asking for copy approval is a clear indication for the journalist that the person they’re interviewing has misinterpreted the nature of journalism and the role of PR in it. It’s impossible for a journalist to offer an unbiased, independent take on a subject if their article has been mucked about with by PR teams.
As a result, the answer to the question of copy approval is always (except maybe under exceptional circumstances, which will always be down to the journalist’s discretion) going to be a resounding ‘no’, so it’s better for everyone involved if the question is never asked.
Thankfully, I’ve only ended up in the situation where a client asked for copy approval twice; both of which were during the early, rookie days of my career, and both were with first time interviewees. Mercifully, on both occasions, aside from the initial awkward silence and my own urge to slide under the desk and have a bit of a cry, the issue was quickly brushed over and didn’t cause any real friction between either party. A firm, but polite ‘no’ and a brief explanation of why was enough to settle the matter.
The mistake was of course mine for not explaining the process fully during the pre-briefing stage. It’s all too easy for PRs to forget that to the majority of the population, our role is a total mystery. Company spokespeople are very rarely from within the marketing function, and so are often unaware of the difference between paid for advertorial and independent editorial. As such, it is understandable why unseasoned interviewees would ask for copy approval if the PR person has assumed they are familiar with how the interview process works.
Having now been sitting in on media interviews for the best part of five years, I’m thankfully much better prepared and experience has taught me a few helpful tricks (aside from vetoing copy approval as a topic for discussion) for making sure I don’t end up in this situation again. Here’s my top five:
- Get to know the interviewee – whenever putting someone new in front of the press for the first time, it’s best to ask them if they’ve done much media work in the past. It’s easy to be disarmed into assuming that spokespeople know what they’re doing if they come across as a seasoned veteran who knows their stuff; but that doesn’t necessarily mean they have done interviews, so it’s best to ask. If they haven’t, outline the basics (i.e. how the process works), or better yet; get them to do some media training
- Drop subtle reminders – even when working with more seasoned interviewees that you know well, it can help them to avoid dropping any clangers with a gentle reminder that they won’t be able to review the journalist’s copy before it gets published. If there are any potentially risky areas that could come up, then discussing these with the spokesperson before the interview and asking what they would and wouldn’t be happy to see in print can be a great way of getting the point across without being condescending
- Clarify the benefits – rather than just being dismissive of copy approval, it helps to offer a bit of explanation around why it’s better not to have it. Highlighting the credibility that comes with having an unadulterated third-party endorsement can often help to get the point across more cohesively. Asking the spokesperson to draw a parallel between the last time they read a piece of paid-for advertorial and how engaging they found it in comparison to the editorial features appearing alongside it can bring the point home
- Know the risks – ultimately, PRs should never be putting their clients in unnecessary danger. Arranging a briefing on a particularly sticky subject could just be setting the spokesperson up for a fall. If it goes too far south; their job could even be on the line, so it’s understandable they might want to review the journalist’s copy before it goes to print. These types of situation are incredibly rare in technology PR, but it’s as much a part of our job to keep in mind the potential risks as it is to create the opportunities. Rather than putting a spokesperson in a position where they feel inclined to ask for copy approval; it’s better to think about whether they should be doing the interview in the first place
- Think like a journalist – Being able to get into the journalist mind-set and think about the questions they’re likely to ask helps PRs to provide a much better pre-briefing for the spokesperson. This can help them to frame their responses better and avoid being caught in a situation where they want to backpedal on a clumsily delivered response after the event by editing the journalist’s write-up