How to handle media interviewers who ask for guarantees

When responding to a crisis, the public wants to know for a certainty that mistakes won’t be repeated. Here’s how to handle this sticky situation.

Communicators always want to make promises they know they can keep, even when their organization is in full-blown crisis.

For example, if there has been a terrible train crash and people have died, at some point the CEO of the train operator or perhaps a politician will be asked a variation of “can you guarantee this won’t happen again.” Or perhaps the crisis is a data breach and the spokesperson could well be asked “can you ensure this never happens again?”

The temptation, of course, in both these examples is to issue a guarantee. It sounds bold and reassuring.

However, this is a question which can take spokespeople down a dangerous path, because offering this sort of guarantee is riddled with risk, as in virtually every situation it is almost impossible to make such a promise with any confidence.

We would all like to think that lessons will be learnt from crisis media management incidents, but even if improvements are made, no-one can be 100% certain that the same thing could not happen in the future.

Issuing a guarantee simply makes organizations and their spokespeople hostages to fortune, promising something that they can’t live up to.

It is a response which can tee up future embarrassment.

This question can easily feel like a no-win situation, because saying that you can’t confirm something bad won’t happen again can also create the sort of uninspiring headlines that you really don’t need when trying to manage a crisis and restore confidence in your brand.

Headlines like:

  • “RBS boss can’t guarantee scandals won’t happen on his watch”
  • “Network Rail boss apologises for over running engineering work but says he can’t guarantee it won’t happen again”
  • “Heathrow cannot guarantee snow disruption won’t happen again, says airport chief”

If guaranteeing something won’t happen again is fraught with danger and saying that you cannot make any promises leads to negative headlines, how can spokespeople manage this daunting question?

The answer is to slightly and subtly shift the conversation by focusing on what you can guarantee during the crisis incident.

A CEO, for example, could guarantee that they are personally taking control of the situation. They could guarantee that an incident will be fully investigated and that lessons will be learnt from what has happened. They could guarantee that there will be changes to policies or procedures as a result of the incident. Perhaps they could promise there will be a new training program for staff.

These responses all sound positive, proactive and confident, but importantly, they do not commit the organization to anything it cannot live up to—and they won’t lead to damaging headlines.

Of course, the journalist could push and ask whether your response is a guarantee that the same thing won’t happen again. Avoid getting drawn in to answering this exact question, and instead repeat what you can guarantee.

There might not be any guarantees in life, but this approach is your best bet to handle a thorny interview.

Adam Fisher is the content editor for Media First, a media and communications training firm with over 30 years of experience. A version of this article originally appeared on the Media First blog.

 

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