The recent flap between Robert Downey Jr. and a journalist who asked him highly personal questions during a press junket for the new Avengers movie had me thinking about when a PR rep should and shouldn’t interfere and cut short a pre-arranged interview.

I’ve covered film junkets and have been fortunate to never run into any major conflicts. However, there was one movie where I was invited on location to watch some filming and talk to the actors…and the movie studio’s PR account manager in charge of media folk that day was a little too overbearing.

This particular film was a musical comedy with a variety of choreographed song and dance numbers, and I naturally asked one of the actors about the phenomenon of Glee, a TV show whose success seemed to pave the way for this film. After the interview was over, I was instructed by the PR manager to eschew any further Glee questions, as the studio was hoping to avoid such public comparisons.

All I can say is, this studio employee was darned lucky I was working for an online publisher that was not especially adherent to hard-core journalistic standards. There are some editors that would likely have ripped into the studio PR department for trying to censor such a blatantly relevant question.

Ironically, in a subsequent interview, one of the film’s top producers voluntarily brought up Glee and its place in the public zeitgeist, reopening the door to that conversation—a development that must have made the PR rep feel a little silly afterward. Also, you can be sure that I prominently referenced Glee in my final published article.

(It actually got even sillier. At one point, the PR rep cautioned the media not to ask the females in the cast about their singing, because they were self-conscious about it. Mind you, this was a MOVIE ABOUT SINGING.)

As a journalist-turned-PR executive, I have a few tips about how to appropriately control the thrust of a pre-arranged interview tied to a specific event (e.g. a movie premiere).

  1. Do not expect any old-school journalists to tolerate blatant censorship of their questions, especially relevant ones. You’re on safer ground to impose restrictions on bloggers and freelancers, who may work for employers with lower journalistic standards, but even then you should exercise restraint on overly Draconian rules. As an alternative to controlling the media, prep your client in advance on how to pivot certain unwanted questions back to your topic of choice.
  2. If a question posed to your client does seriously stray from the subject matter and you fear a journalistic ambush or a damaging answer, then it is acceptable to jump in and politely but firmly ask the journalist to stay on topic. In the case of Robert Downey Jr., the PR rep seemingly would have been within his or her rights to warn the interviewer not to ask about the actor’s past drug use in this particular forum. That said, if the film was not about superheroes, but rather about a struggling drug addict, then the topic of Downey Jr.’s history of addiction and how it influenced his character’s portrayal would have been fair game.
  3. If you are planning to impose restrictions on certain lines of questioning, even if they are relevant (though perhaps not ideal), then at least notify the journalist in advance of such limitations. The editorial staff won’t feel like the victim of a bait-and-switch, which can damage relationships in the long run.