What if…?
COMMONNESS - Bong R. Osorio (The Philippine Star) - September 30, 2013 - 12:00am

Commonness” received a number of comments about our recent article on “You are as good as your last quote,” and most of the remarks dealt with “what if” questions and how they could be handled with greater impact and efficiency, how to talk to reporters and how to deal with “bad news” or crisis situations. Being reachable and available and taking note of the long-established PR axiom, “mess up, ‘fess up,” are top-of-mind advice, but you have to be the best communicator you can be to handle the media’s hard scrutiny well.

“In the ’90s, a spokesperson could give a message, and now, because of social media, they’re pulling answers out of people. And companies are being held to a higher account,” says Jeff Ansell, a media and crisis communications consultant, and the author of the book When the Headline is You. “There is a degree of damage to the brand when this happens. But once commitments are made, and the crisis is managed, as unbelievable as it seems that people may forget, the damage may just be temporary,” he continues. Ansell, who has helped big companies run high-status issues, illustrates that awful emotion you get when put on the spot as “racing brain syndrome.” As he emphasizes, “Spokespeople can suffer from it when in a crisis or a bad-news situation. Even the most articulate spokespeople say things they don’t mean when they’re put on the spot.”  All spokespeople in certain instances will be faced with a situation or a question that can puzzle even the most seasoned practitioner. Ansell lists these “what if…” questions and the suggested way out of each:

What if you don’t want to answer the question, but you have to say something? Though a spokesperson or newsmaker wants to be seen as honest and transparent, the interview encounter is not a confessional. Offer a credible reason why you are unwilling to answer the question and identify what you prefer to discuss.

What if you don’t know how an accident or mistake happened? When bad news happens, people immediately begin pointing fingers and asking questions. Whose fault was it? Did you make a mistake? Answer by saying, “No one yet knows.” By invoking the indefinite pronoun “no one,” you avoid pointing to yourself as being uninformed.

What if you’re asked for hard numbers and don’t know the answer? When asked for statistics that you’re obligated or willing to share, explain, “I want to be absolutely precise and specific, so I will need to get back to you with the exact number. Words like “precise,” “specific,” and “exact” convey that the question has been taken seriously.

What if you don’t know the answer, but a colleague who is with you may know it? If you’re unsure of the response to a question, look to see if that colleague is engaged and wants to answer the question. If he or she needs a moment, briefly discuss a related subject, and then pass the question.

What if you need to pause? An interview is not a social event, and taking a pause, if you need to, is okay. It shouldn’t be problematic. And you can also choose not to open your mouth, believing that “it is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak up and remove all doubt.”

What if there really is nothing to say? If a question strikes you as absurd, irrelevant, or is clearly designed to draw you into a no-win situation, simply tell the reporter, “There’s really nothing to be said.” Other response options include, “I’ll pass responding” and “I have no thoughts to share on that.”

What if the answer is confidential?  Explain that confidentiality rules must be respected, so you can’t directly address the issue at hand. If it’s relevant to the situation, consider adding, “We would just like to assure people that we’re doing everything we can to help the appropriate authorities resolved this issue.”

What if it’s a question about a rumor? Nowadays, news is often driven by tittle-tattles and gossips, including unverified accounts of events, misinformation, smears, and calculated spin. Easily disseminated online, they are spread for political purposes, business interests, financial gain, and entertainment value. When asked to comment on a rumor, it is best to not respond at all. Instead, state that your focus is always on fact, not hearsay.

What if the answer is personnel-related? Unless you work alone, odds are you or your organization will encounter personal issues. When asked about employee issues, it’s generally best to say as little as possible because commenting on someone’s employment record in a negative context can potentially put you in legal jeopardy.

What if the question pertains to lawsuits or lost sales?  Remember, not report words like “lawsuits” or “lost sales” and reiterate that “our main priority is to ensure the well-being of those affected” by the situation.

What if it’s a question about a competitor? Inform reporters you can only speak for your company or organization and then transition to your prepared messages. Or say, “If you have questions for or about other companies, you might want to ask them,” and then shift the conversation to your intended message.

What if it’s a general question about a specific private or privileged situation? Privacy laws preclude spokespeople in certain sectors from discussing specific people or situations with reporters. Banks can’t discuss individual customers, and government agencies aren’t at liberty to talk about a member of the public. When asked to provide a general comment on a specific private situation, liberally sprinkle your answer with “generally speaking” to ensure the reporter does not report the comment as if you were talking about the specific case.

What if the question is offensive? Avoid directly repeating or refuting the offensive claim. If you repeat or refute it, you accept the premise of the question. Instead, express respect for the person or group insulted by the question, presuming they’re worthy of it.

What if you are asked for your personal opinion? Unless your opinion directly matches the policy of the organization you represent, it’s best not to offer one.

What if the issue is ugly, but you’re not the appropriate spokesperson? In a global environment where every large corporation sources products from developing nations or has investments in other countries, it is possible to have a controversial situation occur outside the sphere of your own organization and still be associated with it. Thrown in such situation, don’t directly address the situation. Instead, offer a response that positions your company in a favorable light.

What if you don’t like what you’re saying?  Never feel obligated to complete a sentence. Whether caused by a lost thought or an incidental distraction, a partial sentence need not be finished. Simply begin the response again.

What if it’s a yes or no question? Starting a response with the word “yes” or “no” could be a problem if reporters choose to quote only those words and edit out what follows. Unless the question relates to a high-concern or low-trust issue, skip “yes” or “no” and go right to the message that would follow.

What if it’s an “it’s possible” question? First, present your message. If that doesn’t satisfy the reporter, then use the closure strategy, which works like this: The first time the question is asked, answer honestly in a way that serves your purpose and reflects your prepared message. The second time the question is asked, preface your response with, “As I said,” and then paraphrase your message so it doesn’t sound like your company lawyer crafted it. The third time the question is asked, answer by saying, “I’ve answered the question a couple of times. If you like, I’ll answer it one last time before we move on,” and then, once again, paraphrase your message. If there’s a fourth time, bring the discussion to final closure by saying, “I have time to answer this one last question and then I must move on to my next meeting, and then reiterate your key message.

What if it’s a “can you guarantee” question? Avert the question from a situation that cannot possibly be guaranteed and redirect it to a “guarantee” that reflects your intended message.

What if you’re interrupted mid-answer? The first time, let it go. The second time, ask to be allowed to finish your thought. If it continues, gently touch the reporter’s arm. If the reporter still persists, politely demand to be given the courtesy of a response.

Spokespeople are expected to provide answers and explanations. To paraphrase Mark Twain, “They can’t be cautioned to talk, but they have to be careful not to say anything.”

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E-mail bongosorio@yahoo.com or bong_osorio@abs-cbn.com for comments, questions or suggestions. Thank you for communicating.

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