By Keith Yaskin
During a media training session, we warned participants about providing answers that appeared to be guesses. Their facial expressions indicated they were contemplating the answers on the spot. In some instances, colleagues provided different answers to the same questions.
A New York Times article about United Parcel Service reminded me about that media training session. The story discussed how a passport shipped by UPS went missing for about two years. What happened? The writer described a company spokesperson’s statements as theories. When the writer questioned the first theory, he said the spokesperson offered another possibility. Perhaps the spokesperson was attempting to be helpful and transparent, but, according to how the writer related the story, we inferred the spokesperson set herself up for cynicism. After the spokesperson offered her first theory, the writer pointed out UPS’s substantial tracking technology as if to question how in the world the company lost a passport.
I talked on the phone with Susan Rosenberg, UPS Public Relations Director. She is who The Times quoted in the story. Susan told me she had worked with this journalist before and frequently speaks with consumer advocate reporters. She said it’s not uncommon for some of those reporters to initially approach their stories from negative points of view. She told me this writer’s story was cynical but she expected that from the beginning. She said she tried to be as helpful as possible for the reporter and explained the company went through exhaustive efforts to learn what happened with the passport. She explained the writer requested a substantial amount of data that the company did not provide. And she pointed out the story brought up the positive of UPS’s sophisticated technology
I was most curious if Susan regretted offering the writer educated guesses in contrast with saying something to the effect of, “Despite our exhaustive search, I’m afraid we are not sure why the passport went missing. We are still looking into it.” Susan told me she wasn’t interested in having a 20/20 hindsight type of conversation.
I have mixed feelings about Susan’s approach. On one hand, I applaud her willingness to apparently take extra steps to answer the reporter’s questions. On The Flip Side, I inferred the writer used Susan’s educated guesses about what happened to the passport as a launching pad to cynically question whether he received reasonable explanations. In general, we believe saying, “I don’t know” is a better approach than speculating. Don’t be afraid to tell the media you don’t have certain information and that you need to do further checking to get the details. You will be happy to get back to them later.
If you offer speculation, be prepared for a reporter to ask a follow-up question that questions your logic. You might be placing yourself in that situation and opening yourself up to a line of additional questioning that might not even be relevant. Don’t increase a reporter’s opportunity to lead you into a trap and revel in gotcha moments. In general, educated speculation leads to too many potholes.
That’s what media training can do for you.