More than three years ago, Lebanon-Syria News Director Zeina Karam in Beirut began her quest to get an interview with Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Karam, along with AP’s longtime Damascus stringer Albert Aji, worked their sources, convincing reluctant Syrian officials about The Associated Press’ reach and significance. Last week, their work paid off: the first fully televised interview Assad has given to an international news agency, resulting in an exclusive, news-breaking all-formats package.
Karam and Aji win the Beat of the Week.
The story illustrated AP’s global reach, particularly in video, with more than 1,500 ‘hits’ (and counting) on around 100 broadcasters. Channels interrupted their programming to relay AP’s 25-minute interview, with nine immediately taking the feed from AP’s LIVE channel. The BBC alone used elements of the story 175 times; Reuters flashed alerts and stories all citing AP.
The Syrians wouldn’t budge. They said either that Assad did not do interviews with news agencies or that he did not wish to speak with “the Americans.”
At the height of the Syrian civil war three years ago, Karam began writing letters to Syrian officials every few months asking for an interview. The Syrians wouldn’t budge. They said either that Assad did not do interviews with news agencies or that he did not wish to speak with “the Americans.”
She continued her efforts at Syria-related conferences and summits in New York and Europe. Finally, Karam made contact with an old acquaintance who now had a senior role at the media office at the palace in Damascus and who promised to take the interview request to the highest level. Aji in Damascus followed up by visiting palace officials, addressing other concerns and misconceptions.
Ian Phillips, vice president for international news, conducted the one-on-one interview with Assad at one of his presidential palaces; Karam and Middle East video chief Tomislav Skaro oversaw the all-format editing process and production.
In the run-up to the interview, the team did two unique things:
_ To drum up interest, several top broadcast customers were invited to help frame the topics of discussion, giving them a sense of ownership of the story.
_ The team knew that Assad would likely deny every accusation made against his government; and he did. Beirut reporter Sarah El Deeb prepared facts and statistics relevant to his comments. The material resulted in a fast and useful fact-check story after the interview.
The timing couldn’t have been better. With attention peaking on the Syrian conflict, Assad spoke exclusively about a cease-fire that had just collapsed, a deadly U.S. attack on Syrian troops, an attack on an aid convoy that was blamed on Syria and Russia – and the siege of Aleppo, which he denied.
(AP meanwhile was able to transmit the text of the broken cease-fire deal, obtained by Washington, D.C.-based reporters Bradley Klapper and Matthew Lee.)
The text story was retweeted more than a thousand times from the main AP Twitter account. On Facebook, it garnered more than 10,000 hits. World leaders also responded to the interview. The Q&A transcript, relayed to customers, stoked almost as much interest as the edited text stories. The video will bolster the AP’s video archive.
For their tenacious behind-the-scenes planning to deliver an exclusive interview that captured the world’s attention, Karam and Aji win this week’s $500 prize.