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How Publicists and Journalists Work Together for the Perfect Artist Interview

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CMA Close Up/CMA/ Nashville, TN -- By Donna Hughes
One of the publicist's most important and daunting challenges is to ensure that their clients' interviews and media coverage are as positive as possible. Admittedly, this may put them at cross purposes with certain members of the media who may find it more enticing to spread dirt than sunshine. But more often than not, there are ways to ensure that both parties get what they want.

The fundamental step in making this happen is for the publicist to be sure that interviewers have all the relevant tools and artist materials at their disposal, including a list of essential talking points. "When we arrange and prepare for an interview, we feed as much information as possible to the outlet, and a lot of times it is information that isn't readily accessible," said Ebie McFarland, President/CEO of Essential Broadcast Media. "We also reciprocate that information gathering with the artist, i.e., 'You met them last year and talked about golf, and they are especially interested in' whatever the angle is. By establishing common ground between the two parties, you automatically provide a more relaxed environment for the interviewer and interviewee.

"Publicists are gatekeepers to a lot of privy information," she continued. "The most important thing we can do with that information is to find a great outlet to help us share it. Where there is a true marriage between an artist and a journalist, it yields an article that not only furthers the artists' career, but it also reaches a larger audience for the media outlet."

That ultimately serves an additional interest for the journalist representing that outlet. "Your relationship with a reporter or journalist is the most important thing for you as a publicist," said Tree Paine, VP of Publicity, Warner Music Nashville. "That starts with trust. It starts with the journalist understanding that no matter what, we have the same agenda — to deliver the very best story."

Having experienced a head-swimming year of success and intense media coverage, Kimberly Perry of The Band Perry can offer insight into how an interviewer can help establish a mutually beneficial rapport. "As an artist, I always love it when an interviewer asks questions about your particular songs and what your creative process is, as opposed to, 'Hey! You kind of sound like this person. What does that mean to you?'" she said. "I understand because it's familiarity to us to liken us to other artists, and that's wonderful because those other artists have paved the way for you. But we certainly are working hard to contribute our own style and our own thumbprint to Country Music, so I love it when an interviewer talks about that."

That lesson is not lost on the better journalists covering the Country beat. It may be tempting to introduce new acts to the public through comparisons to their more familiar forebears, but it reflects better on both the artist and the discernment of the writer to instead share insights into what makes those acts unique.

"If you are interviewing them because they have new music coming out, it is always great to hear the new music first," said radio veteran Becca Walls, midday host on WKDF-FM Nashville as well as co-host on Today's Country WAXX-FM / Eau Claire, Wis., co-host of the nationally syndicated TV show "The Country Vibe with Chuck and Becca," writer and producer of the news blog at TheCountryVibe.com and correspondent for numerous syndicated radio outlets and companies. "When you listen to a song or songs, you can formulate a more interesting question than, 'So tell me about your new single.' I would tell a publicist, the more you want me to ask questions that promote your artist, be sure I know all that they are promoting."

Tom Roland, who works currently as editor of "The Billboard Country Update" and music programmer for CMT's "The Singing Bee," adds that artists should understand who is interviewing them and what they need. "For me, it's a weird situation because I'm a freelancer and the kinds of publications I represent are different from day to day," he said. "Sometimes the artists themselves are not really prepared for what I'm writing about at the time."

Once all these pieces are in place, how does the game begin? It takes some skill on both sides to create a great interview. As Paine put it, "I hope I lead you on a nice scenic drive. I would want the journalist to trust me that I'm giving you good information and that when I give you the talking points or tidbits, you've got to trust when you ask that question that you're going to get a good sound bite or that you're going to find yourself following a path you're going to enjoy. The journalist has to be good at listening. Most are, but on a few occasions there are journalists that want to interject what they think the artist is about to say. When that happens, they can actually miss part of that scenic drive. It's like telling the artist, 'You want to make a left turn here,' and the reality is that the artist was going down a path that would give you the best views, and now you've taken them in a different direction."

According to Cindy Heath, founder of Monarch Publicity, writers can benefit as much as Boy Scouts from the mantra to "be prepared. It can be frustrating as a publicist when you do everything you can to make sure the journalist has everything they need in advance to prepare for the interview, from the story line to music, talk points, bio and other materials, and the interviewer comes into the meeting unprepared. It reflects poorly on everyone involved."

"I personally spend a lot of time researching and familiarizing myself with the subject of the interview," Roland said. "I'm always looking for the holes and what's not known that I can fill in, or something glaring at me that no one's ever spoken about."

"When you have a chance to interview someone, have enough respect to do your homework, write thoughtful questions and be prepared with all the information you'll need to get the most out of the interview," said Walls. "You should know why you're talking to them, and you should also be prepared to talk about other topics. Reading the talking points sheet you get from the publicist is not enough, unless you want to do the same, unoriginal interview that everyone else is doing."

Once the interview is underway, Walls' advice becomes even more pointed. "When they talk, listen," she emphasized. "If you go in with the goal of just zipping through your questions and don't pay attention to their answers, you may miss a valuable opportunity to have a great conversation and ask a great follow-up question."

"Be invested in the interview, be cognizant of your body language and come prepared," McFarland stated. "Let the interviewee know up front who your audience is and why you want to share their messages with your listeners or readers."

What happens if a journalist takes this advice a step too far? Publicists sometimes ask them not to get into certain sensitive areas, such as a divorce, romance or tabloid story. For publicists, it's good sense to expect and prepare for the unexpected with their artists. "We try our best to answer honestly when a reporter steps out of bounds on questions like that by saying, 'I don't feel comfortable addressing that topic in our interview, but thank you for asking,'" McFarland said. "If the journalist still pushes for a further response, we have unfortunately had to step in and redirect or cut the interview short."

"Honesty is the best policy," Heath added. "But you also don't have to give up too many details at the same time."

"The artist and publicist relationship has to be symbiotic," Paine noted. "This interdependent relationship is crucial especially when a journalist oversteps boundaries. I trust that we have gone over every single curve ball even before they sit down with a reporter. I always tell my artists, 'Answer the questions truthfully. If we get in a bind, it's my job to fix it.'"

Some media outlets offer both risk and opportunity. Many publicists feel that if it's the right artist the hip factor and possibility of major coverage outweighs the chance of embarrassment on "The Howard Stern Show" or "Chelsea Lately." "Blake Shelton was one of the first Country artists on E! Entertainment's 'Chelsea Lately,'" Paine said. "They have an amazing relationship. They have that similar comedic sense of timing and rapport. With Blake, there was no doubt in my mind that he could hold his own with Chelsea Handler."

A few years ago, while working at Lyric Street Records, Heath booked Trent Tomlinson on "The Howard Stern Show." "It made sense for Trent's music, image and persona," she said. "Anything that was potentially going to be said or done could be explained by his public persona. But it wouldn't make sense to put other artists in that position because it isn't in line with their brand or their image."

The lesson is that there are many possible directions for that scenic drive through the road map of any interview — as long as you find the turn toward the most suitable destination.

© 2012 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.

ve taken them in a different direction.s like telling the artist,

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