When is it acceptable for a PR person to dictate to a journalist what questions he or she may or may not pose to a client? That is just what happened this week when the publicist for Brian Williams’ famous-in-her-own-right daughter Allison blasted an email to journalists planning to cover Ms. Williams’ appearance at a Michael Kors event in New York’s Soho (tonight). Here’s the request from the unnamed PR pro as reported in the New York Observer:
“Please note that Allison Williams will only be answering questions pertaining to Michael Kors, fashion and Girls. We request that no questions about her personal life be asked,” the email blast said, preemptively informing reporters who hadn’t RSVPd what they can ask on a red carpet they hadn’t agreed to cover.”
Hollywood’s top publicists have long enjoyed the ability to dictate the terms of an interview, kill photos not to their liking, and even hand-select the journalist they’d like to report the story…all in exchange for client access. As we go from A-list to B-list to C-list, the ability to “manage” these interview terms decreases commensurately.
Personally, I have issues with telling reporters how to do their jobs. Sure, we can suggest topics to explore and even point out questions the interviewee may not be comfortable answering. But I always believed that the primary onus is on the interviewee to deftly deflect a question he or she does not wish to answer. And there are many tried and true techniques for doing so (if one can get the A-lister to submit to them).
Still, pre-conditioned A-list access is no guarantee that the reporter won’t break the rules – especially if the interview takes place on live television. I had the good fortune to work with HSH Prince Albert of Monaco and his sister HSH Princess Stephanie for the launch of the Princess Grace Foundation.
We secured their first-ever U.S. TV appearances on both NBC “Today” and ABC’s “Good Morning America,” which were as fiercely competitive back then as they are today. We got around the issue by giving “Today” the “first” interview, albeit as a taped segment to air in the show’s first hour, and “GMA” the first live slot airing in the second hour. Both promised not to delve into Prince Albert’s personal life, which, as you may remember, was quite colorful.
Both agreed to limit their questioning to the new Foundation and the memory of Princess Grace. Sure enough, two minutes into the GMA piece, the host started to ask Prince Albert about his social life. Groan. The Prince handled it, well, like a Prince, but this PR person was mortified. And it didn’t help matters when the next day the executive producer of NBC “Today” dashed over a personal note chastising me for trusting GMA.