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
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 &
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
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
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
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
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.
555 West 57th Street
New York, NY 10019-2985
Tel: (212) 975 2006
Fax: (212) 975 2019
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.