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Posted: May 04, 2010

An insider’s guide to managing your message: part 2

Give positive answers to negative questions

Esty Atlas

(Editor's note: This is the second of three parts. Read the first part .)

Insider Tip #3: How do you field third party questions?

First, recognize the first few words. These are often unsubstantiated questions. For example, "A recent report indicates that several of your products are defective and dangerous. How do you respond to that?" Or, "According to one of our sources, the community you serve only has a secure water supply for the next 10 years. Isn't that the main reason for your recent big rate increase?"

Whoa! As you can see, the hornets nest has been opened and human nature is to naturally protect oneself from further attack. Here, you've got to understand third-party questions are based on an assumption or an accusation. It's attributed to someone else, and you're invited to respond. Even trickier, this approach strongly implies that not answering the question just the way it is stated implies you are hiding something.

Be very careful. You can never assume information transmitted by an unnamed source is accurate (or for that matter, a named source). Here are some suggested answers for each.

Q: "A recent report indicates that several of your products are defective and dangerous. How do you respond to that?"

A: You're quoting a report we have yet to see. We'll want to review that immediately. Meanwhile, what's important for people to know are the steps we take to ensure product safety. These steps fully meet and, in fact, exceed the requirements established by the (name of appropriate regulatory agency). Should any of our products ever be in question, however, we have an immediate notification policy in place on our website and will issue a public consumer advisory.

OR--

A: We just received that report and our safety engineers are reviewing each item noted. Meanwhile...(rest as above).

The key is to acknowledge you are working on it and will advise how you'll share relevant information in a timely manner. Timely means in a 24-48 hours news cycle. (Remember: Toyota was fined $16.4 million for withholding known information on vehicle safety issues for four months before going public). And, at all costs, avoid a news reporter saying, "Our calls to XYZ company were not returned."

An accomplished interview subject will rarely miss an opportunity to turn a reporter's or consumer's question (no matter how negative or confrontational), into an opportunity for delivering positive messages.

Didn't realize there were so many interview variables? Too often, people under-estimate how a news story or consumer issue is approached these days. It takes practice, strategy, and planning to truly get your point across. Our culture is designed to pick apart every possible reason why there must be something wrong going on with the organization you represent or you wouldn't be asked to comment.

In the event of a crisis, say a potential health hazard, you can expect speculative questions to come immediately. You need to have your emergency response ready.

Three down, two to go. Look for part 3 next week for the answer to the question: How do you handle speculative questions?

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Esty Atlas is the owner of Esty Creative, a four-time Emmy award-winning marketing, communications, media strategy coach and public relations branding specialist. She can be reached at: 303-919-2425; email: estycreative@yahoo.com or www.estycreative.com

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