Thursday, July 30, 2009

Why don’t PR people always answer questions immediately?

A reporter friend once told me this joke:

Q: How many PR people does it take to change a light bulb?

A: I don’t have all the facts at the moment; let me check into it and get back to you.

Yeah, it’s funny, because it’s true. But not for the reasons journalists sometimes think.

I once interviewed a newspaper reporter who wanted a PR job I had advertised. During the interview, he said something like: “And don’t worry, I know how it works. When a reporter calls, you put the message to the side and work on everything else first.”

His purpose in saying this was to reassure me that he wouldn’t put the media first just because that’s where he’d come from. But instead, it served to underline how little he knew about what goes into responding to a media call.

When a reporter asks a question, (s)he knows where (s)he is coming from, knows the basis for the question, and has a certain amount of background information on which (s)he has based the question. It’s entirely possible the reporter has spoken with others on the story, and has been given a number of different perspectives on the question, each of which comes informed by a bias of some kind.

But when the reporter’s question comes to the PR professional (especially when it isn’t expected), the PR professional doesn’t necessarily have the benefit of all that information. So (s)he has two choices: answer the question based on what (s)he may know on the spot, or take some time (taking the reporter’s deadline into account) to gather some information and ensure his/her answer is based on the most up-to-date facts. Yes, that takes time – sometimes only a matter of minutes – but it’s time well spent, and most reporters understand it’s a worthwhile investment in an accurate story.

Case in point: President Obama vs. Cambridge police

This evening, President Obama will reportedly share a beer and (hopefully) a laugh with Cambridge Police Sergeant James Crowley and Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. at the White House, in an effort to clear the air after Obama’s “unfortunate” comments about Gates’ arrest in his own home in Cambridge last week. (I put “unfortunate” in quotation marks, because that’s the word Obama used to characterize his own comments; I might have chosen “ill-informed” or “poorly-considered,” but that’s another blog post.)

Don’t get me wrong – I think very highly of President Obama as a communicator. But he's not immune to making mistakes, which he did by answering a question about something he didn’t know enough about, and using inflammatory language that made the issue worse.

Here is the initial out-of the-blue question, and Obama’s answer, on Gates’ arrest.

Obama knew of the incident and obviously felt that prefacing his comments with “I don’t know all the facts” would cover him in case he had any of the details wrong; but as the ensuing fallout demonstrated, it didn’t. It would seem that Obama was confusing two different charges: breaking and entering (the suspicion of which prompted the 911 call in the first place, but with which Prof. Gates was never charged) and disorderly conduct (for which charges were reportedly laid and later dropped).

The issue of whether Gates was indeed the homeowner was irrelevant to the charge of disorderly conduct – to be able to judge whether that charge had been warranted, you’d have had to have known what happened between Prof. Gates and the police officers at his home. published the (alleged) Cambridge police reports of the incident here.

Obama’s statement that “I think it’s fair to say… the Cambridge police acted stupidly” ratcheted up the media heat on the issue, so much so that the President had to clarify his intended message, sort of.

(I say “sort of,” because to me, at least, the message behind “I unfortunately gave an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge police department or Sergeant Crowley specifically, and I could have calibrated those words differently” isn’t quite right. Saying “it’s clear” that someone “acted stupidly” is more than giving an impression.)

At any rate, this was a “teachable moment.” Obama recognized his “choice of words didn’t illuminate but rather contributed to more media frenzy.” Had he had all the facts, he very likely would have chosen words other than “stupid” – and he may have “calibrated” his message to sound more like it did in the second clip, after he’d been fully informed of what had happened.

We’ve all misunderstood a situation on first hearing, only to see it differently once we’ve had a chance to get better informed; unfortunately, Obama created further problems by answering before getting better informed.

So, what should he have done when asked the initial question?

I don’t have all the facts at the moment; let me check into it and get back to you.

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