When to not answer questions during media interviews

As a general statement, I believe that media training should teach spokespeople to manage exchanges with journalists to win-win outcomes.
answering questions is at the heart of media training

We all know the organization wants to either protect itself or enhance its brand, or both. It should legitimately be attempting to use the exchange to influence specific audiences.

But we have to recognize that journalists ask questions for a living. It's probably why they became journalists in the first place. (If they like making a little more money than they like asking questions, chances are they're one of my colleagues in PR.)

Therefore, if a spokesperson wants to help the journalist's "win" (not to mention be polite and build a better relationships by communicating more effectively), answering questions clearly and concisely is the secret to success. Doing so enables the journalist to create a story that is relevant to the audience, interesting to read, watch or listen to, and factually correct.

There are three acceptable answers to questions posed by journalists:

  1. Yes, I have the answer; here it is.
  2. No, I don’t have the answer; I’ll get it for you (or find someone who can provide it).
  3. Yes, I do have the answer; I cannot discuss it.
The third option—knowing but not answering—can be evoked in situations for which:

  • The case is currently before the courts.
  • Union negotiations are under way, and a news blackout has been imposed.
  • An emergency has occurred, and next-of-kin have not yet been notified.
  • Answering the question would breach securities legislation
  • Answering the question would compromise employee, customer, member, client, patient or other confidentiality
  • Answering the question would breach another aspect of privacy of information legislation
  • Answering the question would divulge sensitive competitive information
  • Answering the question would compromise national security
When asked a question that cannot be answered directly, the answer is simple:

  • "I'm sorry. I cannot answer that question. Doing so would divulge sensitive competitive information."
  • "I'm sorry, I cannot answer that question, because doing so would breach securities legislation."
The situations above are legitimate reasons for not answering questions, but they are not barriers behind which an organization can hide.

If your organization is tempted, it's important to discuss the fact that there are two courts in our social-media-driven land.

In a court of law, the premise is that you're innocent until proven guilty. In the court of public opinion, the premise is reversed; silence can be (and often is) construed as guilt.

Bottom line? Answer whenever you can. When you can't, don't. But say why.

Bridging to Messages on Anderson Cooper’s RidicuList

I have often said that the skill of answering questions is the least developed skill in human interpersonal communication. And it’s a skill I believe we could (and should) continually hone. As a general statement, we could all benefit by constantly working to improve how we answer the questions we’re asked.

We all know that politicians are a category unto themselves when it comes to being terrible at answering questions. But Florida governor Rick Scott, the politician on Anderson Cooper’s RidicuList in this video clip, is in a league of his own.

When I watched this video the first time, I recalled many conversations I’ve had over the years with my PR colleagues who, when I’ve questioned the value of bridging to messages instead of clearly and concisely answering questions, have said to me: “Politicians do it all the time.”

Yes, they do. But as Anderson Cooper aptly points out, ignoring questions “doesn’t really work. It just insults everyone’s intelligence.” And the insult can apply to everyone—a journalist in a scrum, an employee at a town hall, an upset or confused neighbour at a public meeting, or a sales prospect across the desk.

Cooper then asks: “What if people in other professions started doing this?”

For example, if a teacher is asked a question in class, imagine that he or she keeps repeating that “attendance is up … attendance is up.”

Or imagine that, when asked by a patient if he or she is dying, a physician keeps repeating “I’m appreciative of everyone who comes to see me.”

Unlike virtually everyone else, politicians can get away with the non-transparent tactic of talking about “what’s really important” because they live in a gilded world built on the twin pillars of blind loyalty and least objectionable programming. It's time we realized that other industries do not have this luxury.

In all democracies, there are people who are blindly loyal and have voted for one political party their entire lives. They will continue to vote for that party, regardless of whether a convicted felon or a narcissistic blowhard is leading it.

For the vast majority of the rest of us, the choice is not for the most desirable candidate, but the least objectionable. The 2016 US presidential election was a perfect case in point. How many millions of people who are not blindly loyal to a political party actually voted for someone they wanted in the White House? But of all the elections in which I've personally voted since 1976, there have been only one or two candidates for whom I have been rooting. In virtually every other election, I find myself holding my nose and voting for the best of a bad lot.

Politicians may be able to get away with not answering questions, but for the vast majority of the world, for which transparency is a growing issue, answering questions will continue to trump bridging to messages each and every time.