Setting Ground Rules for a Reporter Interviews

Most PR people know about setting ground rules for a reporter interview, but most attorneys probably don’t.

The vast majority of the time, you won’t need them, but there are times when ground rules can be indispensable. “Ground rules” is originally a baseball term that refers to the rules that apply to specific ball parks, or grounds. Those rules are set in advance of the game or the season, and they specify what the result is, say, if a ball hits the edge of a fence or if it lodges in ivy on the wall.

In PR, “ground rules” refers to the terms of an interview, also set in advance. What statements by the subject of the interview can be used? What topics are off limits? What answers will be off the record? Is the whole conversation off the record?

If you as a PR person think that a reporter is likely to venture into sensitive areas, if the whole subject is very controversial, or if you’re concerned that the lawyer might speak a bit out of turn in the interview, you might want to set ground rules – or encourage the attorney to do so. And like the ground rules in baseball, you need to set the rules in advance. The lawyer can’t tell the reporter all about the firm’s confidential merger plans and then say, “Oh, that was supposed to be off the record.” It doesn’t work that way.

Lawyers need to understand from you that in the absence of an advance agreement that sets ground rules, whenever they are speaking to a reporter, they are on the record. If a reporter emails a lawyer, the response is on the record. If a reporter sees the lawyer in the coatroom or the restroom at a conference and asks a question, the response is on the record – unless ground rules were set that placed it off the record.

It’s not difficult to set ground rules, and you certainly don’t have to use the term “ground rules.” Just say, “I’m happy to talk to you, but because of the sensitivity of this story, you won’t be able to quote anything I say by using my name. Just say ‘a source within the firm,’ ” or whatever rule is appropriate.

Still, not every attorney will have a feel for the concept of ground rules, and it might occasionally be necessary for you, as a PR person, to get involved in the interview at the start to set the rules. You might want to assure the reporter that the interview will indeed be with the lawyer and that you aren’t there to screen his answers.