Every public relations professional fears the ambush interview. For the uninitiated, an ambush interview is exactly what the phrase implies: a television ‘journalist’ ambushes an unsuspecting subject and makes him or her look very foolish, frightened or fraudulent in the process. And, if the genre has a founding father, it would have to be Mike Wallace of “60 Minutes” fame.
I raise the ambush interview issue for two very different reasons:
1.) Despite countless individuals and organizations having been savaged by ambush interviews, self-congratulatory, inward-focused and Kool-Aid drinking CEOs continue to put themselves in harm’s way by requesting off-the-record briefings in order to tell their side of the story in the midst of crisis. CEOs are best advised not to do so unless they’ve anticipated every conceivable negative question and have ironclad responses in hand.
2.) I’ve just finished reading “The Kennedy Detail.” It’s written by one of the surviving members of the Secret Service detail entrusted with President John F. Kennedy’s safety and security, and is intended to set the record straight, once and for all. As something of a Kennedy assassination buff, I thought I knew all there was to know about the sad event. But, I did not. And, I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in learning more about November 22, 1963.
Near the end of the book, there’s a fascinating chapter about Clint Hill, who had been assigned to Mrs. Kennedy’s Secret Service detail. He was the agent who climbed aboard the president’s limousine just seconds after JFK had been mortally wounded. Twelve years after the shootings, Hill was invited to appear on 60 Minutes by Mike Wallace.
Hill agreed to do so only if Wallace promised not to probe into the details of the assassination. Wallace readily agreed and said he was really only looking to do a profile of the Secret Service itself. And, Wallace was true to word. The taping went well. Wallace asked Agent Hill about Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson, and the role of the Secret Service.
Then, a few days later, Wallace called Hill up and said there’d been a problem with one small section of the taping. He asked “Secret Service Agent #9” if he’d mind re-taping about five minutes of it. Hill agreed.
Now, double click on this link and watch what Wallace did to Hill: Mike Wallace Clint Hill 1975 "60 Minutes" Interview.
The media perform a valuable service in a free society. But, journalists such as Wallace are to be feared. His gotcha style of gonzo journalism devastated Hill, and exacerbated the agent’s downward spiral towards alcoholism and depression.
CEOs and their counselors would be well advised to watch the Secret Service Agent #9 clip before they decide to sit down for their next interview. The image and reputation they save may be their own.
Thanks and a special tip o’ RepMan’s climbing helmet to Edward M. Ted “Conspiracy Theory” Birkhahn for sending me the Clint Hill link.