Wednesday, September 2, 2009

How not to not answer a question

Over the last day or so, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers have taken some heat over their response to reports they’re in talks with controversial NFL player Adam “Pacman” Jones. [Update Wednesday evening: the Bombers have reportedly decided against bringing Jones on board.]

The fact is, sometimes you can't confirm something for the media (even if it's true). It could be because the information is protected by privacy legislation, or because it's competitively sensitive, or because it's material to a company's stock price, or because there's a contractual agreement not to talk... there are a number of reasons. And the media generally understand that, if it's put to them that way in good faith: "I can't talk about that because..." It doesn't mean they'll stop asking (after all, that's their job), but they'll generally get it.

In this case, though, we have one official essentially saying "we can't talk about it, even hypothetically, because of CFL policy," followed by another who immediately engages the reporters’ questions and then tries to cover himself by saying he wasn’t talking about any player in particular.

In media interviews, there aren’t any “loopholes.” Perception is reality, and trying to be too clever can backfire on you.

There are times when you can talk about an issue in general terms, to give reporters enough information to write a balanced story without breaking any non-disclosure agreements. For example, if a company was accused of mishandling a customer's account and that particular case couldn't be publicly discussed, a spokesperson could help media paint a balanced picture by discussing, in general terms, what the company's policies are with respect to customer accounts. The discussion couldn't touch on the current allegations against the company, but it could help provide some background information. "While we can't discuss this case, this is how we generally handle things" can be far more constructive, from a PR perspective, than "no comment;" and it helps with your relationships with the media, too.

That isn't always possible, though, when your situation doesn't lend itself to discussion in generalities. In the Pacman Jones story, the reporters want to know whether or not the Bombers are negotiating with him. Period.

If there’s a legitimate reason you can’t comment, you can’t comment – fair enough. Don’t, and explain why. But you can't tease media with the whiff of a response, and then refuse legitimate follow-up questions on the basis that you’re not commenting – and maintain your credibility in the briefing room.

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