Tough Media Questions II: Repeating Negatives

By George Merlis Wednesday, August 31, 2011

I recently read an article in the New York Times that contained a textbook case of how not to respond to a negative question.

The story was about a large employer, which I’ll call “The Enterprise.”  The Enterprise is encountering some rough weather including worsening conditions that has led it to some downsizing.  The Enterprise’s chief executive was quoted this way in the newspaper:  “We’re not adrift. And the vision is not gone. And we have a plan. We have a very sound plan.”

I always encourage clients, when formulating an answer to a media question, to include the sense of the question in the answer, so that the response can stand alone as a soundbite or direct quote.  The sole exception to this rule is if the question is hostile or contains negative words.  While I was not there when the chief executive’s interview took place, I am confident that the quote I cited came in response to some variation of this question:  “Is The Enterprise adrift under your watch?  Does it (or, do you) lack vision?”

The executive snapped up the bait.  Omitting the question and just running with the answer, the reader is left with the impression that the whole matter of visionless, drifting leadership came from the executive.

Similarly, if you’ve ever read “This is not a disaster waiting to happen,” or “This is not a desperation move” in an interview, you can bet it came in response to “Isn’t this a disaster waiting to happen” or “Isn’t this a desperation move?”   By omitting the question and just using the answer that contains the negatives it appears the interview subject brought the negative up for consideration.

So how do you answer “Isn’t this a disaster waiting to happen?” and its kindred questions?  In a previous post, I wrote about my four-steps to get from a tough question to your agenda point:  acknowledge the question with a short form answer, build a verbal bridge, deploy an agenda point and, finally, shut up (don’t revisit the hostile question or the negative words.)

The executive, faced with, “Is The Enterprise adrift under your watch?” could have answered, “No”  As far as short form answers go, “no” is unparalleled -- it’s the second shortest word in the English language  (the shortest being “I.”)  If the reporter wants to use the negative word adrift, it has to come from him, it didn’t come from the executive.  Then he might have built a bridge, “As a matter of fact.” (Also short).   And then deployed his agenda point: “We (or I) have a vision, a plan, a very sound plan.”    “No.  As a matter of fact, we have a vision, a plan, a very sound plan” is a lot more positive response to a negative question than “We’re not adrift. And the vision is not gone. And we have a plan. We have a very sound plan.


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