The right answer is even more important in a crisis

Today, CEOs, and the people directly under them, are facing more pressure than ever before, as Rupert Murdoch found out.

Today, CEOs, and the people directly under them, are facing more pressure than ever before, as Rupert Murdoch found out. Both governments and the public in general have a much lower opinion of business and business leaders then previously. And business leaders are under constant pressure to provide answers, as BP and General Motors found out. These answers can have an impact on their relations with all their key audiences: the government, the financial community, investors, customers, and their own employees.

One wrong answer can create significant damage. When Rupert Murdoch at first said he did not plan to attend the parliamentary hearings about The News of the World, though he later changed his mind and appeared on what he called “the humblest day of my life,” he did irretrievable damage to his company and himself. The indication that he was above parliament did not sit well, especially with the English public.

Of course, during a crisis period, the right answers are even more significant. And at a conference on crisis management I once spoke at, I told the audience there are certain rules about answering questions, regardless of what the crisis is or who the group you are facing is. These are:

  • A good answer answers the questions. Avoiding the answer shows you are either unprepared or else afraid of the truth.
  • A good answer is stated positively.
  • It is expressed in layman's terms.
  • A good answer is specific.
  • A good answer is concise.
  • The main point is up front.
  • It does not include more than is necessary.
  • A good answer does not repeat loaded or slanted words used by the interviewer.
  • It recognizes opportunities in the questions to present your point of view
  • It doesn't sound defensive or antagonistic

And it is important that you rehearse before any important interview. For as one wise pundit said, “There is no such thing as a stupid question. Only a stupid answer.”

Robert Leaf is former international chairman of Burson-Marsteller.

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