Journalists may be caught in a dilemma when publicists restrict questions or topics in an interview. This is a quick summary of the truth and consequences of limitations set by publicists in an interview.
The main job of journalists is to provide the public with information by asking tough questions. However, have you ever realised that even though there are very obvious scandals circulating around a public personality, journalists don’t question them in interviews?
Of course it’s not because these journalists find the scandals insignificant and irrelevant to the public. I mean, who wouldn’t want to know Jennifer Lawrence’s thoughts about her nudes surfacing the internet?
Unfortunately, the world of journalism can still be limited. The existence of celebrity publicists made the world a difficult place to question someone about their nudes or sex tape.
How do publicists affect the interview process?
Every public personality has a publicist. These people make celebrities’ lives easier and of course, they make them famous.
Publicists control interviews to a certain extent. A journalist has to pitch to the publicist of a celebrity to land an interview, in return for coverage and publicity. The publicist could restrict certain topics in exchange for an interview.
Think of the publicist as the middle man (or an annoying obstacle — depending on your standpoint) between a journalist and a celebrity, who is more bias towards the celebrity.
Sometimes celebrities aren’t even aware of the ban
A publicist’s job is to maintain their client’s public image. It is literally their job to do what’s best for the client’s reputation. When come under such pressure, they help decide the topics that are restricted in interviews, for the sake of the celebrity.
However, not all the time these celebrities know about the restrictions. This is when journalists get a bargain out of it. You get significant information without even asking.
In an article from The Spin Off by Jesse Mulligan, reporters share the questions they are banned from asking. A particular example was from Dominic Harvey, who was interviewing Benji Madden, who reported that he was not allowed to ask questions about Cameron Diaz. The interview ended up with information about Cameron Diaz.
“He [Benji Madden] ended up mentioning it [Cameron Diaz]… so I told him we were asked not to mention it. He seemed surprised and said often these ground rules are set by publicists and not him or his brother.” — Dominic Harvey, on his interview with Benji Madden
Of course, celebrities may not mind having these information shared, but publicists might. It is important to double check with the celebrity and the publicist before publishing anything.
The limitation creates curiousity
Imagine being a journalist and have someone tell you you are not allowed to talk to Ellie Goulding about Taylor Swift. Here is what my thought process would be like:
What happened between Ellie Goulding and Taylor Swift? Is there a feud? Are they in love? I want answers to the questions I can’t ask!
It definitely creates a mystery that could curate an amazing story for the public. Well, unless you want to jeopardise future chances of interviewing this particular person, I suggest you either negotiate or keep the idea in mind for perhaps, future stories.
Some restrictions are outrageous
In Mulligan’s article, in his interview with a New Zealand artist, he was banned from asking about his diet (veganism). It seems outrageous that publicists decide is bad from the client’s image.
The best thing to do is just suck it up and stay silent. An opportunity might come in the future.
Is it worth it?
Most people might argue that there is no point in journalism if we are only allowed access to certain topics. As mentioned by Izzy Stone in my last article, “News is what someone, somewhere, wants concealed. Everything else is advertising.” After all, these restricted questions are where the juiciest news lie.
Now the question is, is it worth it to carry on an interview if the restricted topic is crucial to the main purpose of the interview?
The consequence of insisting these questions varies. Celebrities might walk out and cost the journalist a story and future opportunities for an interview. Or you can have cases like Chris Brown shattering a window in the studio of Good Morning America after being asked about his domestic violence charges. Either way, it will backfire.
There is no real answer to whether it is worth it. It’s up to you, as a journalist, to decide how far you’re willing to take.
Best advice to handle a situation like this would be obey the rules. If you insistent on the topic being banned, try negotiating. If you’re really willing to risk it, ask at the very end of the interview.