Strategy of Answering Questions – Three Spokesperson Rights and Three Ways to Answer a Question (All Involve Answering Honestly)

BARBARA WALTERS, JUSTIN BIEBER

In the first post of this series on the Strategy of Answering Questions, I provided an overview on how and why the strategy and tactics used in “spokesperson training” for a media interview can be applied to any business meeting, presentation or conversation. I also made it clear the PR professionals’ job isn’t over after the interview is booked and the training occurs.

In this post, we will talk about the rights you have when you agree to an interview and the three ways to answer a question.

Our spokesperson has three rights we – as PR professionals – need to be aware of:

The Right to Be Prepared – A spokesperson should never enter into an interview without a clear understanding of what the interview is about.

The good PR professional is going to provide a briefing sheet. This is a given. But, know your spokesperson. The purpose of the briefing sheet is not to prove your existence or worth. More may not be better. You don’t want your spokesperson to overanalyze a reporter or try to be too clever by referencing some obscure fact you found about the reporter.

It should include basic information on the outlet and why it is important (our target/real audience reads it, etc.). Same for the reporter. If there are relevant stories, you may want to include.

Part of making sure your spokesperson is properly prepared is letting him/her know that it is okay to conduct an interview with notes in front of them. Whether over the phone, in-person or – in many instances – on television. Work with the spokesperson in determining what they prefer – – note cards, etc.

The Right to be Comfortable – It is important to be comfortable for two reasons.  First, when you are physically comfortable, you will be more confident. Second, you should be thinking about your message, and physical comfort will allow you to do that.

The good PR professional will not only make sure the spokesperson is comfortable, but aware of the task at-hand. For example, if conducting an interview over the phone, make sure the interview is on a landline or on a cell where there will be consistent, good coverage. No speaker. No driving. No distractions.

The Right to Be Treated Fairly – Common courtesy is not always common in an interview. Part of our role is to make sure our spokesperson understands who he/she is talking to – – a reporter/anchor is allowed to ask tough questions but should “call it down the middle” while a columnist/commentator is getting paid to offer up an opinion.

If a media outlet has the reputation of being off-color or irreverent, go in with your eyes open. If the topic you are discussing is explosive, the interview may be.

When it comes to answering a question, there are three ways:

Direct, Immediate Response – Whenever possible, this is the best way to answer a question. You definitely want to convey your willingness to answer tough questions.

Sometimes people ask non-questions like:  “Tell us about your company,” or “Describe your strategy with this new move.” These “questions” are simply an invitation to start talking.  The interviewer is “handing you the microphone” and asking you to communicate.  Take this opportunity to define your company or cause.

After Thought – There are some questions that require you to think before you answer.  Since you don’t want to stare at anyone in stunned silence, these are techniques that will give you time to think:

  • Ask the questioner to repeat or rephrase the question.  The question will always be easier the second time.  Even if the question is repeated verbatim, it buys you some time to think about your answer.
  • Repeat or rephrase the question yourself.  “If I understand you correctly, what you’re asking is” or “The key point you are raising in your question is” or “What is important for the audience to know is…”
  • You can also think aloud to buy some time.  “That dates back to the a few years ago” or “Let me just provide a perspective to that…”

Try not to overuse these techniques. Save them for those situations when they are really needed.

Not at All – There are questions you don’t have to answer…well, sort of. You do have to give a direct response explaining why you are not going to answer the question.  These responses include:

  • “That’s personal.”  Questions about your salary, voting record, hobbies, personal opinions.
  • “We consider that competitive information,” “Our competitors would love to know that.”  Questions about corporate strategy, profit margins, expansion plans, new products or services are proprietary.
  • “I really can’t talk about it while it’s in litigation.”  There are legal reasons for not answering questions.
  • “Negotiations are in progress.”  You don’t have to reveal the progress of ongoing negotiations or private discussions.
  • “It wouldn’t be smart to give a blueprint to our security.”  You don’t have to answer questions about these precautions.
  • “I don’t know the answer to that question.” The best reason of all not to answer a question is that you truly don’t know the answer. Abraham Lincoln said it best – – “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”

One of two things will happen:  A question is asked and since you have agreed to the topic, and you’ve prepared ahead of time, you will concisely answer that question and “bridge” to your message points. Or, a question is asked and you don’t know the answer. Tell them that and wait for the next question.

You may have heard people complain that a reporter took their words out of context.  Odds are, the reporter didn’t do that. Odds are that person went off his message or tried to answer a question he wasn’t prepared to answer. The same could be said if someone “misinterprets” something you said. Never try to guess the right answer to a question.

Now that you know how to answer and what you can and cannot answer, the next post will talk about the process you should go through when preparing your messages and the technique of bridging, or transitioning from your answer to your message.

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