TOP Talk

Taking the Heat: How to Handle the Tough Questions

Posted September 09, 2016 By Sue Parente

Topics: Crisis Communications, Media and Presentation Training


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Image credit: keyword-suggestions.com

When people are described as being “comfortable in their own skin,” it means they possess a kind of unaffected confidence in themselves and how they live that prevents them from being easily rattled, overly defensive or forced into acting out of character. It’s a quality that usually engenders trust and admiration and draws other people to them. 

The same can be true for a company or organization. It’s only when a company is sure of its mission and how it is executing against that mission that its spokespeople will be ready to handle difficult situations and the tough questions that come with them. In fact, it’s usually in the toughest of times that a company’s true colors come through.  When you know who you are and what you stand for, every answer to any tough question is more easily developed because they are, in one form or another, simply an extension or manifestation of that core belief and mission.

How you handle the tough questions defines you more clearly in the minds of your customers than most forms of marketing can do. The trick is achieving that level of comfort — getting comfortable in your brand’s skin — and maintaining it. To do that takes thoughtful preparation.

Frame every conversation so the people asking the questions cannot mistake the company’s intentions.

As a spokesperson, your job is to communicate both the heart and mind of the company. Understanding the clear purpose of the organization and the audiences it serves will help to ground your response. If you’re a transportation company, the safety and well-being of your passengers dictates everything you do. If you’re a wealth management company, the financial success and security of your clients comes first. If you’re a healthcare company, patient health is put above all else.

No matter how well known a brand is, never assume its purpose is already understood. The spokesperson has to say it as plainly and as often as he/she can so that the conversation begins and ends with that common understanding.

Obtain buy-in from the top.

Before handling questions from any audience, whether it’s media, analysts or customers, make sure there is full agreement on and support for the messages and details you’ll be delivering. Answers to tough questions should never be made on the fly, but instead be based on the results of careful upfront message planning involving senior management and, in some cases, even the company’s board.

Know everything you can and be sure of what you don’t know.

As soon as something goes wrong, your first step should be enacting your crisis plan. This is a good practice even if the situation doesn’t constitute a serious crisis. The plan merely provides a protocol for getting all of the right people assembled to formulate an informed and sound response.  Once the necessary parties are convened, you can ascertain the facts at hand and understand what is still to be determined. Knowing what you don’t know is critical. Your audience will forgive you for not having all of the answers immediately, and it will go a long way to building their trust if you are upfront about what you don’t know. HOWEVER, you need to follow up with all of the essential facts as soon as possible to provide transparency and demonstrate to your audience you have nothing to hide.  

Stay on track.

In an effort to appear cooperative when facing tough questions, a spokesperson can often be led off track by a reporter looking to write a particular story.  In these instances, the spokesperson needs to hold his/her ground. Just because a question is asked doesn’t mean you have to answer it.  Instead, you can bring every answer back to the message you want to communicate. Phrases such as “I’m not sure your question is really pertinent to the situation, so instead let me clarify the central point…” or “What’s really important to understand is X. Let me explain further…” or simply, “I’m not sure about that, but what I can tell you is…” etc.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting a strategy of dodging the hard questions; rather I’m pointing out that it’s important to stick to the hard questions you’ve come to address without wandering into other topics you may or may not be prepared to cover adequately.

Acknowledge hard truths, faults or shortcomings.

Just remember “the truth will set you free.” When something has gone wrong or not as expected, just admit it and turn immediately to how your company or organization is going to fix it. The more time you waste trying to deny, distract or deflect, the longer that mistake sits there, threatening the health of your brand. Once it’s been acknowledged and apologized for, you can start to move forward.

As a spokesperson, one of your hardest jobs can be convincing senior management to admit costly mistakes. But you are the brand’s ambassador, and it’s your responsibility to keep them true to the brand mission and help them see that the cost of not owning their mistake will be far greater in the long run.

Have the courage of your convictions.

Let’s face it, sometimes the media can be harsh, and at times, it can feel like they are purposely trying to trip you up or make your company look bad. They are only doing their jobs. It’s not personal. Your job is to make the facts as clear for them as possible with plain and simple messaging and supporting evidence.  If you believe you are doing the right thing, than you don’t have to fear any reporter, any time.

Like all valuable metals, your brand gets stronger when forged in high heat. Every tough question is an opportunity to make your brand’s case at a time when people are paying attention the most. By making that case with confidence and conviction in the most difficult of situations, you’ll prove to your stakeholders that your purpose and strategy are not easily shaken. They’ll admire you for it, and even when you falter, more often than not, they’ll give you another chance to make good on that brand promise. 

Sue Parente

About Sue Parente

What inspires me? Brave communicators who dare to put "right" before "safe."