PR tips for writing an interview

As the inhouse PR counsel here, I write all sorts of things. My purpose in writing interviews is very different to that of a journalist. I’ve written nearly all of the interviews in the company magazine since 2009. You can read them here, in the People section. The magazine carries two interviews, one with a Korean executive and one with an expat project manager. We nearly always interview the project manager (the head honcho) or second-in-charge since they are usually the best informed about their project. On a few ocassions I have been forced to interview Services Managers or subcontractors; the former is usually concerned with matters that would not interest our readers, while the latter usually tries to advertise their own employer rather than their client (not that I can blame them, as I would probably do the same).

As promised before, here are some tips for writing interview articles. But first, some caveats;

  • As the inhouse PR counsel, my job is to make sure my employer and our clients look good in our company magazine. The interviews I write are NOT investigative pieces. This also means we send the questions to be asked ahead of the interview. Typically the person I am interviewing will have sent their answers back to me or will have the answers for me on the day of the interview.*
  • When the interview article is finished, I send it to the interviewee to be approved (sometimes it needs to be sent to their head office). Most of the time the only corrections made are technical details, though sometimes the client’s PR team will make other changes. If this happens we tend to go with the version received, with the only changes we make being those according to our style guide.
  • I always record my interviews. Sometimes the interviewee is taken aback by this, but like Sam Tyler explains, it is best for accuracy if the interview is recorded. And since we also have Caveat 2 in place, this isn’t much of a problem. Even though I record the interview, I still take notes; some habits die hard.

1. Prepare Prepare Prepare

Yes, three times. It is the most important step. To show that you are serious about the interview and to show the proper level of respect, you need to have as much information about your subject and the company/project as you can. Even if the person you are interviewing has already submitted answers to your questions, do the research. This way you can have a real conversation rather than an interrogation. Ricky Gervais says it best with Larry David.

If you can’t watch the video, Gervais is saying you need to build rapport. You do not do this by interrogating your subject. You build rapport by listening and asking followup questions. Knowing about their company and their work will give you a better chance of asking the right followup questions.

2. Expect the Unexpected

If you’ve done Step 1 correctly, it should be quite easy to have a conversation. As the two of you are talking (your subject talking, you taking notes and asking pertinent questions), the conversation may wander to other topics not directly related to the focus of the article you are writing. This is fine as you’ll get an idea about the person you are interviewing. For the article I write, part of it is about their life in Korea and their experiences working here with Koreans and in other parts of the world. We also spend some time talking about hobbies and pastimes. Letting your interviewee talk will let you see their passion for their work and hobby; in this quarter’s interview, he was talking about his first Hash with the local chapter of Hash House Harriers. It is very rare for the person I’m interviewing to purposefully try to steer the conversation away from the topic; far more common when I’m talking to a Service Manager or someone else not near the top of the organisation, though.

This is also where you may find yourself needing to ask for clarification for certain terms. While this has more to do with the next tip, I’ll mention it here as well. As our magazine is an industry publication but has a readership ranging from engineers and industry media to diplomats and my mum, some technical terms need to be explained. The best way to do this is to make the terms relatable to the reader, especially when using measurements. The better sentence is in italics.

  • The new very large crude carrier (VLCC) is 400 m long and 40 m wide.
  • The new oil tanker is as long as four football fields.

First, avoid technical jargon unless completely necessary. For the way we write, the first mention of an item will always be its technical name or as it is commonly known in the industry, with acronyms if available. Further mentions will be as the item is commonly known to everyone else. Remember that acronyms should generally be avoided as too many of them in text can distract the reader and make the article look ugly.

The reason for converting 400 m to football fields is because it is difficult for most people to understand the scale of large numbers; that is just how our brains work. But everyone knows how big a football field is, right? For example, those huge orange cranes we have in our shipyard stand 100 m tall. Even standing next to them it is hard to understand how high 100 m really is.

They’re called Goliath cranes because …..

3. Write It Up

I prefer narrative or news story style for interview articles rather than Q & A Style. The main reason is that it is not an interrogation. Of course, Q & A is much easier, but it doesn’t fit visually with the style of our magazine. Keep in mind that with Q & A style your subject might feel railroaded and ill feelings of any kind are something you want to avoid.

The first paragraph should tell your reader who the person being interviewed is and why they are being interviewed. A good way to start an interview is with a quote, though this will depend on the topics you discuss; it’s easier to start with a quote if the interview is kept to one topic. For our purposes, the next paragraph usually describes the interviewee’s company, followed by a brief description of his past work experience. The past work experience can be peppered thoughout the article as some quotes can be relevant to the current project and certain aspects of the work.

The body of the article deals with the client’s project and why they chose my company for the work. This is the meat of the article. If we don’t have a fact box on the page, it is this section that has the most technical information and therefore can also be the most difficult to read. I’ve found it is best to have quotes from the interviewee explaining the size of the engine or number of workers, etc as it feels that they are actually talking to the reader. The last thing I want is for my article to read like a Wikipedia entry.

The last two or three paragraphs usually describe some hobby or cultural experience the person I’m interviewing has had in Korea. This can also include some ‘culture shock’, but more often is about the Korean work ethic (hint: you don’t go from poorest country in the world to Top 15 in one generation without working hard). At this point we are both more confortable with each other so we can exchange anecdotes about living and working abroad, as I’m usually the only foreigner they’ve seen that has taken the blue. A good way to end an interview article is with a quote. The best quote is one that relates to both the current project and the person being interviewed.

So there you have it, tips for doing and writing an interview from an inhouse PR perspective. Now interview, my pretties! Interview!

*If you ask us for an interview, we will ask for your final version. However, we do not expect you to send us the final version, we just want to see if you will.

But that is a story for another time.

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