Interviewing Public Officials


Whether it’s the governor of the state, or the head of a large government department, or a member of a town board or commission, every public official understands that at some point in their career, a reporter is going to ask them questions about something.  How you handle the interview may have a big impact on how they respond to you.


If it’s not a “news conference” situation, whenever possible make an appointment to interview the person.  If it’s an in-person interview, arrive on time.  If it’s a phone interview, make the call on time.  Respect their time, and keep an eye on the clock.  If it’s a fifteen-minute slot you’ve been granted, don’t try to stretch it to twenty.  Be prepared with questions ahead of time.  Don’t try to “wing it” with an experienced public official.  Not only will you miss the opportunity to get a good interview, the public official will lose respect for you.  Do your homework.


Be courteous.  Turn off or silence your cell phone, pager, beeper, or any other such device during a face-to-face interview.  Remember to say “thank you” at the end.


If it’s a news conference situation, arrive on time.  Few things irritate public officials as much as members of the media who come late to a news conference, and then disrupt things by placing equipment on the lectern while they’re speaking, making noise in the background, or pushing your way closer to the speaker.


There is a tendency of some public officials to redirect your question and answer not your question, but the one they want to answer.  Often, such a “redirect” begins with the phrase “what you’re really asking me is…” and here’s where you have to listen carefully.  If they actually do answer the question you asked, but in a different way than you expected, no problem.  But if they don’t answer the question you asked, politely re-phrase the question and ask it again.  If they still don’t answer your question, move on.  The audience will know they dodged the question.  If it’s an important question that you really want the answer to, and there’s time, it’s OK to bring it up again toward the end of the interview.  If you don’t have enough time with the person you’re interviewing to bring up the question again at the end of the interview, after you’ve asked the question twice, it’s OK to say something like “I guess I’m just not going to get an answer to that question”.  Don’t continue to badger the official.  The audience will know what’s going on.


Do not “threaten” a public official who declines to be interviewed.  Persuasion is one thing; a “threat” is another.  Never give a public official a “talk to me or else” ultimatum.  Explain that you want your listeners or viewers to have a chance to hear their side of the story; that you will do your best to be fair in how you report it; but don’t make threats.


Below are several “bullet-points” from a public official who has been interviewed by the media thousands of times over the past 40 years.  Paul Soglin, long-time Mayor of Madison and former Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University has several pet peeves

# Not prepared. With undergraduate students I accept that they are looking at the subject for the first time and have limited resources. They figure they are doing a short paper, so why bother to learn the subject. The standard is higher for a professional journalist.

# Sending me written questions to make it “easier” for me. I am not the one doing the work; interview me and take notes. Advanced written questions are nice but do not expect me to do the writing. I like the advanced questions – it gives me time to prepare, maybe even find reference material that will help the journalist. I may even do some writing but I am not the paid journalist.

# Assuming this can be done in a 10 minute interview on the telephone when it is better done for an hour in person.

# Not prepared (again). Know the players. Know the relationships. Keep a scorecard. Even better, know the issues.

# Trying surprise or trick questions, especially if we are filming or live. At my age, I have seen it all. I learned long ago to smile and say nothing works just fine

# I hate the final question. “Is there anything you would like to tell me that I failed to ask?”

# While it is a good idea not to waste the subject’s time with an unprepared interview, never hesitate to ask for a background interview which may run an hour or more.  It can be on or off the record, preferably on, and should be in a relaxed, unrushed setting. I would rather do that for two hours than a poorly planned one that lasts twenty minutes.