How to do interviews that get better stories for PR. Tips from a Hollywood reporter
As a Hollywood journalist I talked with Golden Globe winning actors and Grammy winning artists. But, after doing thousands of interviews, I’ve seen what works. Even famous, confident Hollywood stars might not realize the magic that they have inside them – until you pull out that original, amazing story by asking the right questions.
Having a nose for news helps me pitch better stories that get PR results. Good PR pitch crafting starts with interviewing the expert sources on the team to try to gather the incredible facts that readers will care about.
It’s a tricky business. It’s not that the CEOs, CTOs or founders we work with are shy. However, they really might not know what’s interesting to a mass audience. But there’s no way around this. A lot of the most interesting facts and stories about companies aren’t on the company website. It’s in the heads of the experts on the team. A PR pro has to draw it out of them.
What are you looking for, exactly? Astonishing anecdotes, cool facts and hot takes. Here are some categories:
What’s cool about their entrepreneurial journey?
What makes their tech stack stand above the rest?
What milestone did their business hit – and why was it so unlikely that they would achieve this level of success?
So, enjoy these tips from an ex-Hollywood reporter about how to get into your expert source’s head, so that you can create that celebrity buzz for PR.:
Build rapport with your expert source by getting personal
I once had an editor that was overly pushy. He wanted me to ask a notoriously private actress about her personal life. Instead of overstepping boundaries and making her uncomfortable, I took a different approach.
As the actress shared, so did I (in limitation). “You binged that show? I got through it in two days too!” The actress felt comfortable and safe to open up on what she felt was her terms rather than mine.
Sometimes connecting with someone is as easy as bringing up the weather. Sharing personal anecdotes is a low stake way to help your interviewee relate to you and vice versa. When your expert source is comfortable, they’ll be less guarded. If it works right, you’ll get to a place of “You know, I’ve never told anyone about this, but…” Those are the magic words that reporters and PR professionals love to hear.
Don’t stick to the script. As a PR pro, listen, react and let your expert source really talk to you
As humans, we have an urge to finish people’s sentences. But as an ex-journalist, listening to full answers is how I would uncover new information.
I grew up with a mother that loved watching Larry King. Whether he was speaking to Carrie Fisher or Vladimir Putin, he was a ruler at listening to his subjects. By listening attentively he could form follow-up questions to the interviewee’s answers on the spot and change the direction of the interview.
As an interviewer, reflecting on someone’s responses is key. For example, one time I asked The Queen’s Gambit star Anya Taylor-Joy a question about creativity. She casually mentioned that she found solace in painting. Instead of skipping to my pre-determined question I paraphrased what she said in a follow-up and asked her to expand on her answer. She talked about things she’d never said before to any journalist – and I got an original take that made a splash when the story came out.
(By the way, Hollywood actors do this kind of thing a lot when they’re on set: some of your favorite scenes from your favorite movies were unscripted and the magic happened when they felt natural and went with the moment. Improvising in an interview can take you to places you never knew existed.)
Show respect for your PR expert source. Do your homework before you interview them
There’s an obvious power imbalance when dealing with celebrities (just as there’s a power imbalance between a powerful CEO or top executive and a PR pro. It’s not quite monarch vs. court jester, but you get the idea). As a reporter or as a PR pro, I always make sure we’re on the same level, to help build that rapport I talked about above. How do I do that? I come to every interview with research to give me the upperhand.
I interviewed an acclaimed actor once. He was shocked (in a good way) when I brought up something he casually mentioned 5 years prior. It caught him off guard and showed him that I came prepared with questions that weren’t surface level. This created an even greater bond of trust, which led to one of my favorite interviews. My editor was pleased.
One reporter I greatly admire, Vulture writer E. Alex Jung, is a master at this. He uses research as a way to show respect instead. The interview turns into a conversation — a basic human interaction — rather than a formal discussion.
When I’m preparing to interview someone, I seek out what the interviewee has said in the past. I watch their previous interviews on YouTube and read past profiles. This helps create questions and gives an interviewer grounds to bring up past anecdotes.
For example, when speaking with actor Sam Spruell (who you may have seen in popular TV shows like Fargo or Doctor Who) I referenced an essay he wrote for the acting website Backstage. In the essay, he briefly writes about bringing imagination and collaboration onto every set. When I brought it up and asked him to expand on that sentiment, he was eager to give me the goods on a story that got major clicks when it went live.
As a PR pro, ask open-ended questions to get the best stuff from your expert source
When I interviewed one high profile actor, I already knew he was born in New York before getting his big break. What I didn’t know about him was what it was like growing up in New York and toughing it out as a theater actor. The best way to find out more about someone? Open-ended questions.
Like Emmy winning journalist Mark Steines preaches, asking open-ended questions leads to richer discussions and prevents the interviewee from giving a routine answer. My favorite question to pose? Getting the interviewee to describe how they feel they’ve grown between their first project to their current one. Asking an unpredictable question always gives an equally unpredictable answer.
But what about the questions you shouldn’t ask? For example, if I was interviewing Miles Teller I wouldn’t ask what it was like working with Tom Cruise (obviously he’s going to say it was great — it’s Tom Cruise!) Instead, I would ask what it was like to be on set with such an established and renowned actor and if there were any techniques or tricks Teller picked up on from Cruise. This is narrow and specific — and not something anyone would already assume.
Find out how our ex-reporters can turn your team’s tale into major media coverage by contacting our tech PR agency