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How to handle difficult questions

23 March 2021

How to handle difficult questions

The easy part of dealing with the media is fashioning the shape, parameters and language of your message. The tough bit is doing all of this on the hoof with no time to extrapolate the consequences of any potential response you might make while simultaneously embedding your preconceived position into the answer.

It’s called the Cartesian conundrum and is summed up through a quartet of questions which go like this: what would happen if I did say that? What would happen if I didn’t say it? What wouldn’t happen if I did say it? What wouldn’t happen if I didn’t say it?

The formidable political interviewer Andrew Neil once reacted incredulously to a minister’s attempt to defend a premium phone line for impoverished claimants seeking information about the new Universal Credit system. What exactly were claimants paying for? ‘Will you speak to the work and pensions secretary about this?’ probed Neil. ‘I speak to him all the time…’ mumbled the minister unconvincingly. ‘I’m not asking you that!’ said Neil, destroying her believability in one fell swoop.  We knew she’d been rumbled – caught with her metaphorical trousers down: she had no convincing response to an utterly logical question. 

There’s a lesson here for any corporate spokesperson stuck on the horns of the same dilemma: you may well have to mitigate on behalf of your organisation for an unfortunate or accidental mishap, but don’t make it worse by ignoring the most obvious aspect of the story. 

At the end of the day, this is about showing some humanity and demonstrating that you can be reasonable. And we’re not talking about specific messaging or landing a key theme, this is so much subtler than that – this is about your character, this is heart not head. This is putting yourself into the minds of those receiving not just the words you are saying, but crucially what it might actually look like to them. Does what I am saying sound convincing? Or if I was interviewing me would I think, ‘well that’s a pile of old junk’? It’s not a difficult distinction to make. With some simple foresight and a consideration of the Cartesian quartet, things will improve if you find yourself in a similar situation.