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.