June 14, 2022 — Witness enough news conferences, especially the televised variety involving high-ranking company and public officials and journalists looking to make a name for themselves, and you’ll likely hear the question that makes spokespersons sweat.
The question usually comes in the wake of an unfortunate event, whether it’s a product defect, a municipal snow removal in response to a surprise blizzard or an environmental spill or release.
The question goes something like this: “Can you guarantee that (insert name or brief description of unfortunate incident) will never happen again?”
Guarantees not always possible
Of course, the answer in most of those situations is, “No.” Despite the best of intentions, guaranteeing that a pipeline will never rupture or that your ice cream production line will never experience another listeria outbreak is simply not possible. As much as society has accomplished in minimizing defects and improving quality, it’s highly unlikely there will never be another unfortunate incident.
Truth be told, most journalists know this. In fact, so do most readers, viewers and listeners. But reporters crave the headline or soundbite that says something to the effect, “Mayor says she can’t guarantee there won’t be another water pipeline break.” It begs audiences to read the article to learn why. It’s a great tease going into a commercial break.
No one can control the questions asked in any interview, and that authority should always remain with journalists. As spokespersons, however, we can control the answers we provide in these situations. In doing so, we can deny journalists the “gotcha” moment they want.
Turn table on question
The key is to talk about the steps your organization can and will take to prevent a similar occurrence. Moreover, you should begin your answer by saying that your organization will “guarantee” to take certain measures, emphasizing the word “guarantee” in a diplomatic and nonconfrontational manner.
By using the word “guarantee” in their answers, spokespersons can minimize the appearance they are avoiding the question. More important, they position their organizations as leaders because they are doing something about the problem.
In most cases, when bad things happen, most people want to know that an individual or organization is taking the lead to make things better and/or prevent a recurrence. This begins the healing process and moves attention to the future while lessening the focus on the past.
Don’t make matters worse
Of course, when guaranteeing to take certain measures, it’s incumbent on an organization to follow through on those commitments. It’s a great way to rebuild any lost trust. And you can be sure the journalist who asked for a guarantee will likely publish a follow-up story on whether your organization lived up to its promises.
Though it’s tempting, issuing a guarantee that a certain event won’t happen again, especially when circumstances are beyond your control, will only make matters worse. At a minimum, journalists will pepper you with questions about how you can make such a claim, which as mentioned before, they know is a virtual impossibility. At worst, and at an even higher level, making an unfounded guarantee will damage your credibility with key stakeholders who either know such a guarantee is implausible or will be angered if the event repeats itself.