There’s one question that excites journalists and the media more than any other.
“Can you guarantee the security of your data?”
“Can you guarantee a return on investment?”
“Can you guarantee you’ll turn things around?”
Media journalists know that if you answer yes, they’ll have you for dinner when you fail.
Here’s why these questions are so hard question to answer – and how to answer them.
We worked with a formal Principal of a university in Edinburgh.
We asked her if she was looking forward to the arrival of 12,000 new students for the coming academic year.
“Very much so”, came the reply.
“Can you guarantee their safety?” we asked.
“Yes I can”.
“Really? You mean you can guarantee they won’t be mugged in Princes Street? They won’t get drunk and fall down Fleshmarket Close? They won’t be assaulted in the Meadows?”
She looked horrified.
“I can’t, can I?” she asked, breaking from the mock interview.
“Absolutely not”, came our response.
Naturally, she was worried about the headlines that would come from saying ‘no’ infront of the media to such a thing.
That’s the reason I believe politicians shy away from answering the guarantee question directly.
“Ms. May, can you guarantee a smooth exit from the EU?”
We worked for a drinks company in Europe some years ago, when they announced to the media that they were making significant changes to their business.
“Can you guarantee people won’t lose their jobs?” we asked.
“Andrew”, came the reply.
“There are only two things you can guarantee in life…death and taxes”.
We followed up:
“So you can’t even guarantee the taste of one of your pints of beer?”
“Well…” came the hesitant response.
“There are three things you can guarantee in life: death, taxes, and that our pints of beer taste great”.
We hear that sentiment very often in response to the guarantee question during media interviews.
“Andrew, I can’t guarantee that I won’t cross the street tomorrow and get knocked down by a bus”.
Hardly a positive answer to reflect on your business.
It’s always no.
Of course, if you simply stop there, you’re in trouble.
You need to quickly find something you can guarantee.
“No – what we can guarantee is that the safety of every single student is our priority – and that will continue to be our priority for as long as Edinburgh is home to each and every student”.
“No – what we can guarantee is that if anyone’s job is affected, we will be helping them at every stage to find employment elsewhere in the business”.
Notice that each one avoids a quotable negative headline.
Often simply repeating the question is enough to get yourself in trouble when it comes to the media.
“No we can’t guarantee student safety 100% but what we can guarantee is…”
That’s a very dangerous thing to say.
The headline would read:
Principal “can’t guarantee student safety”
So stop short of that.
Answer the question with a ‘no’ – and move straight on to your point.
It’s often a feeling of ‘I should be able to guarantee it’ that gets in the way.
So I’ll finish with this.
I was asked a guarantee question recently by a prospective client.
“Can you guarantee each person will be better at media interviews after their media training?”
“No – that’s up to them – what I can guarantee is they’ll get the benefit of 28 years of helping people in their position handle the media confidently and skilfully.
And we are absolutely determined to ensure they’re all confident, skilful interviewees by the time they leave Glasgow”.
We won the business – because we were honest, answered the question and finished on a positive.
You can do the same.
And that’s a guarantee.
Written by Andrew McFarlan, the Managing Director of Glasgow-based media training and presentation skills firm Pink Elephant Communications.
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