A quick guide to answering media questions

Companies need to keep communication channels open so:

  • investors,
  • business partners,
  • employees and
  • customers

stay informed.

You might think  because you are a knowledge worker, your job puts you in a back room role where you don’t need to worry about communications. You may work for a company that thinks it has watertight external communications strategies.

Spokesperson

Even if your employer has access to the brightest and best communications experts, you may still find yourself acting as spokesperson.

If your employer uses the best communications experts, you are more likely to find yourself in the media front line.

That’s because experienced journalists see through the platitudes and feel-good nonsense spouted by corporate spin-doctors. Although they may not immediately be able to dig deep enough to find the real story behind a smokescreen, they know what a smokescreen smells like.

Putting genuine, but trained and fully briefed, voices in front of the media works to a company’s advantage.

You might  be forced to speak to the media even if your employer prefers you to stay in the background. This means that being able to articulate a company’s position is a key skill.

Crisis management

Dealing with communications when things go wrong is crisis management. Smart firms put crisis management plans in place long before any anticipated problems, this saves valuable time when troubles appear.

Developing a crisis management plan is best left for another time. The key elements are establishing lines of communications and putting people in place who can articulate a company’s point of view to the media.

Giving all senior managers media training is a good idea.

Let’s assume you don’t have media training, there are no well-developed lines of communications and you know nothing of any crisis management plans. Things have gone badly wrong and you are in the thick of it.

What should you do if a journalist quizzes you about a potentially damaging news story?

Good stories, not good news

Before we go any further, I must declare a personal interest. I am a journalist, I cover technology companies, I write news. I like to write good stories.

Good doesn’t necessarily mean positive. The news media likes stories with reader interest – from your point of view that might be anything but good.

I prefer to go straight to the most obvious news source – the man or woman in the department dealing with the matter – and ask direct questions. The idea isn’t to catch someone out or make someone look stupid – my goal is to get to the bottom of the story and find facts.

Most employers expect employees to take one of two courses of action at this point. They might prefer it if the employee said nothing, refusing to speak and blocking all questions. Or they might expect an employee to tell outright lies.

Both courses of action are equally damaging, both to the company and to the employee.

Telling lies is dumb

Aside from any ethical considerations, telling lies is just plain stupid.

Sooner or later the truth will emerge and you will be on the record as a liar. Your employer won’t look any better.

You may get away with this. A future employer will not know, not care or even be impressed you lied to cover your previous employer’s backside. Maybe.

Other people will remember your lies. And that will harm your reputation over the long-term, maybe even your business.

At any point a rival might remember those lies and make them public. Your lie might be legally actionable.

On the other hand, if you block a question, it can make things sound worse than they are.

It might  mean you or your employer don’t get an opportunity to put the record straight.

There are worse possibilities.

Suppose you were to read in a newspaper, ‘company X refused to comment on claims that it was trading while bankrupt’? What does this make you think about the company?

In my experience I’ve come up against more advanced forms of blocking, but they all amount to the same thing.  ‘The executive responsible for the exploding television monitors could not be contacted yesterday’ doesn’t sound innocent.

So what should you do when the media calls?

Rules number one, two and three are do not tell lies.

Don’t even consider it. It is better to say nothing.

If you don’t want to answer questions or are not authorised to speak, find someone else who can.

There’s nothing wrong with telling a journalist that you aren’t able to help with enquiries but your immediate boss can.

There’s also nothing wrong with telling a journalist that you, or whoever can speak, is busy but will call back shortly – when you do this, calling back quickly is important. This approach can buy you time to think about exactly what to say, take a deep breath and calm those nerves.

You might even want to take advice from a communications professional.

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