Crisis Management: Answer Tough Questions to Maintain Your Credibility: Crisis communications
When former Enron chief, the late Kenneth Lay, refused to answer questions before Congress and invoked the 5th Amendment against self-incrimination – as his attorney urged –what little credibility he had in the monumental corporate collapse evaporated. I believed his wife’s weepy, credulity-stretching defense of her husband on network TV had already left him “bleeding” in the public eye, and his last minute reversal of a promise to testify certifiably made him PR road kill.
But why would Lay’s refusal to answer questions mean anything when most Americans probably already believed him complicit in the financial shenanigans that masked the energy company’s true economic trouble? In a broader sense, why do any of us want those in trouble to answer questions even if evidence against them seems overwhelming?
We want to judge for ourselves someone’s veracity and character! We want the window into the soul that inevitably opens when a person responds to questions. Without the side of the accused, we must assess on the basis of other available information. That often puts us in the position of hearing the prosecution without the defense. What choice do we have if the person in the spotlight recuses himself from the discussion?
Worse still, I believe that when we get incomplete information on which to evaluate an individual – or especially a company – in the hot seat, we default to our prejudices to decide right or wrong.
For example, when I was a journalist it seemed to me that most people supported the “little guy” against the big organization regardless who appeared guilty. People also believed reporters first and organizations second. Most of all, without persuasive information to the contrary, people tended to side with those like themselves. Parent with parent. Educator with educator, etc. Minority with minority. Blue collar with blue collar. We side with our side!
So what does this mean to you as a professional or executive if you or your company faces controversy? 1) If you don’t answer questions, you may be assumed guilty, and 2) if you only issue written statements without addressing questions then your position may be perceived as spin control, a dodge, or deceptive. The reasonable conclusion about someone who will not face the music is, “He’s guilty or hiding something.”
Here’s the bottom line.
Your credibility rests on your ability to answer tough legitimate questions. Again. Your credibility rests on your ability to answer tough legitimate questions.
Sadly, some media consultants tell clients that they can skirt questions and just deliver carefully crafted messages. That is risky. Experienced reporters, legislators, and regulators will not let you get away with it and thoughtful people will see through it.
So, with the exception of the caveats below, the lesson for you is to make public comments a two-step process. Go ahead and draft wonderful messages, but then gather your trusted colleagues to accomplish these three tasks:
1) Brainstorm worst-case questions and answer them.
2) Brainstorm most-likely questions and answer them.
3) Brainstorm blindside questions and answer them. (These are off-topic, out-of-left-field surprises intended to catch you off-guard.)
Then, after some rehearsal, you can guide interviews toward key messages AND answer tough questions – giving far more credibility to all that you say.
This especially applies to politicians. For example, I have been watching a rising political star who carefully sidesteps positions on important issues. He seems to want to avoid the fray or any missteps as he plans a run for higher office. I wonder when we will know what he truly believes.
Finally, yes, there are at least 3 legitimate reasons NOT to answer questions.
1) You’re Guilty. Self-incrimination is bad, so saying nothing may be good.
2) National Security. As long as it’s legitimate.
3) Extreme Message Focus. Once in a great while, if you want your quoted comment to be precise, you can indeed issue a written statement without taking questions. Sooner or later, however, you must face the tough legitimate questions.
You can run but you can’t hide.