MEDIA: Insider info on America’s hardest-hitting news show - 60 Minutes has been around forever but has lost none of its verve. Though pitching it is nearly impossible, PR pros should know how to deal with its reporters when they come knocking. Cl

In the opening scenes of the movie The Insider, Al Pacino plays a 60 Minutes producer trying to pave the way for an exclusive interview with the leader of Hezbollah (Party of God) in Lebanon. He softballs him. When the Mike Wallace character finally gets the guy on camera, he opens with ’Are you a terrorist?’

In the opening scenes of the movie The Insider, Al Pacino plays a 60 Minutes producer trying to pave the way for an exclusive interview with the leader of Hezbollah (Party of God) in Lebanon. He softballs him. When the Mike Wallace character finally gets the guy on camera, he opens with ’Are you a terrorist?’

In the opening scenes of the movie The Insider, Al Pacino plays a

60 Minutes producer trying to pave the way for an exclusive interview

with the leader of Hezbollah (Party of God) in Lebanon. He softballs

him. When the Mike Wallace character finally gets the guy on camera, he

opens with ’Are you a terrorist?’



It’s a scenario that many PR pros might recognize if they have found

themselves on the wrong end of a 60 Minutes investigation. How you

should deal with a request from the legendary current affairs show

depends on who you talk to.



For some, like Joe Fields, who is PR director at the American Farm

Bureau (AFU), getting involved with 60 Minutes was a decision he

regrets. In April, the program covered a story about the Iowa branch of

the AFU, which was criticized by family farmers for being in the pockets

of big agribusiness companies.



Fields says the interview request was dealt with by the Iowa branch of

the bureau, which offered its president, Ed Wiederstein, as a

spokesman.



Wiederstein went on the air to refute accusations.





Why are they really calling?



’Doing the interview was more damaging, that’s my take,’ says Fields,

who adds that the bureau wasn’t given an accurate indication of why 60

Minutes wanted to do the piece. ’They said they wanted to talk about the

economy and that was not the subject.’ (Darryl Jahn, a spokesman at the

Iowa office, declined to comment.)



But few could argue with 60 Minutes’ journalistic credentials. It has

won nine Peabody Awards for exceptional television broadcasting and 68

Emmy Awards since its creation by the legendary Don Hewitt in 1968.

Though average ratings were down for the 1999-2000 season against the

previous year, the addition of a second mid-week broadcast (on Tuesdays)

called 60 Minutes II could explain the drop. For the season to date, the

CBS flagship show garnered an 11.7 rating, equal to 16.6 million viewers

per week, down from 19 million the previous year.



The show, which airs on Sunday nights, is best known for its hard news

pieces. In recent weeks 60 Minutes has aired segments on prison labor,

gays in the military, the state of democracy in Haiti and Iran’s

connection to the Pan Am bombing.



Getting involved is a good way to stay upwind of a story, according to

crisis PR pro Michael Sitrick, of Los Angeles-based Sitrick &

Company.



Sitrick says staying close to the producers helps to find out how strong

their sources are.



Sitrick has dealt with 60 Minutes on numerous occasions and is best

known for his preemptive strike against ABC news magazine 20/20, which

was planning a story about client Metabolife.



Sitrick put ABC’s entire interview with the firm’s CEO on the Web before

the 20/20 segment aired (PRWeek, Oct. 11, 1999).



Sitrick’s advice? ’Never go into anything unprepared. Do your homework

and understand the parameters.’ He suggests setting up a fake interview

and preparing the questions you think the client might be asked.



’You need to have a clear understanding of what the story is. Make sure

you rehearse your client and do media training,’ he says. Sitrick also

suggests putting pen to paper and getting written confirmation of what

the story is about. He says it’s important to find out what other areas

the reporters are likely to cover.





How to deal with an ambush



If you are surprised by a question during the interview, Sitrick says,

don’t be afraid of asking to take a break, then refresh your memory with

the relevant information.



Not everyone’s experiences with the hard-hitting show have been

negative.



Peggy Armstrong, press secretary to Washington, DC mayor Anthony

Williams, worked with producer Steve Reiner to set up a profile of the

mayor. The 60 Minutes focus was on how Williams has coped with the

legacy passed on to him by his predecessor, Marion Barry.



Armstrong says her first move was to invite the 60 Minutes team to DC to

discuss its interest. The mayor gave his consent once the focus was

established. ’They gave us a clear picture of what to expect from them,’

says Armstrong, who was told that the segment would feature people

critical of Mayor Williams. ’Whenever you’re working with a news

organization you have to respect that there is a news angle.’



The press secretary says she was not able to request questions in

advance nor was she able to set any ground rules for the interview. ’He

(Mayor Williams) had to be willing to discuss anything,’ she

comments.



Armstrong assisted the 60 Minutes team with archival material and

provided contacts for the reporters who cover the mayor. ’I enjoyed the

experience and the producers were incredibly ethical. Every time I

started spinning, they’d say, ’Back off,’’ she jokes.



Although Armstrong’s experience was positive overall, the 60 Minutes

team refused to say where its background information had come from. ’The

scariest moment was at the end, when they interviewed his mother,’

Armstrong says, adding that she did not hire an outside PR firm but

consulted PR associates about a plan of action.



In addition to its hard news stories, 60 Minutes features lighter

material such as interviews with celebrities. Ed Bradley sat down with

actor Denzel Washington, and CNN’s Christiane Amanpour (who contributes

to the show via a special agreement with CBS) interviewed Jordan’s Queen

Rania.



The show also examines authors and their subjects. John Cornwell’s

controversial book on Pope Pius XII turned up on 60 Minutes back in

March, while Princess Diana’s bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones recalled her

last day around the time his book, A Bodyguard’s Tale, was

published.



It’s unlikely that many PR pros have successfully pitched the show -

it’s hardly hurting for material. But when the folks at 60 Minutes come

knocking, it’s best to not be reluctant to deal with them. You might

want to get some expert help first.





CONTACT LIST



60 Minutes



555 West 57th Street



New York, NY 10019-2985



Tel: (212) 975 2006



Fax: (212) 975 2019



Web: www.cbsnews.com



Executive producer: Don Hewitt



Executive editor: Philip Scheffler



Co-editors and correspondents: Mike Wallace, Morley Safer, Ed Bradley,

Steve Kroft, Lesley Stahl, Andy Rooney



Contributing correspondents: Bob Simon, Christiane Amanpour



Senior producers: Josh Howard, Esther Kartiganer, Merri Lieberthal



Executive story editor: Victoria Gordon.



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