The Right Way and Wrong Way to Do Media Interviews by Email

Last Updated Mar 20, 2008 4:56 PM EDT

An emerging PR tactic is to insist on being interviewed by email. It allows the interview subject to have almost total control of the information provided to the journalist, and creates a record of what was said.

I recommend this tactic when appropriate. Times when it is appropriate include: when time is short and the interview subject doesn't have time for a verbal interview; when the journalist has a known track record as a bully, distorter or poor interviewer; and when the interview subject has something terrible to hide and wants to avoid as much scrutiny as possible.

None of these conditions existed, as far as I can tell, in the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor News case. To summarize, the Ann Arbor News was preparing a story on "how and why many student-athletes land in the [university's] general studies degree program." The series, which ran this week, is a damning portrayal of the use of easy courses to keep student athletes from losing their eligibility to play big-time collegiate sports.

This is sad but hardly devastating. Big-time college athletics is a corrupt system through and through.

The paper sought an in-person or phone interview with university president Mary Sue Coleman, who would only agree to an email interview, which the paper declined. So as a result, the series ran without comment from the leader of the university.
From the story:

A university spokesman said Coleman was too busy to be interviewed, but eventually offered to answer questions via e-mail.
Too busy? Puh-leeze. That line begs for a Freedom of Information Act request to review her schedule. How could she not have an hour or two to prepare for and give an interview? After all, she was willing to be interviewed by email, and that would have required some time, even if an underling drafted the responses.

It was lame of Michigan to duck legitimate questions about its student-athlete program. Once again, here we are talking about something we would have heard little about if they had just given the interview.

The paper isn't without fault, either. I don't blame them for not wanting to be manipulated, but they could have accepted her emailed answers and reprinted them with a caveat about their origin. To get into a tiff about the terms of the interview so that a major figure in the story is excluded is short-sighted and detracts from the impact of the story.

  • Jon Greer

    Jon Greer has been analyzing media and PR for more than 25 years. He's been a journalist and a PR executive, and has been a featured speaker for many years at the Bulldog Reporter Media Relations Summit, and served as Bulldog's Editorial Director for their PR University series of weekly how-to audio conferences.

    Jon provides PR services including media relations and freelance writing to clients including start-ups, law firms, corporations, investment banks and venture capital firms. In addition, Jon provides spokesperson training. Learn more about Jon's training programs at The Media Bridge.