Gove’s guarantee gaffe and how to handle this tricky question

If you are a regular reader of this media training blog, you’ll know we have discussed the complexity of the ‘guarantee’ question before.

It is a particularly uncomfortable question for spokespeople and it’s something that tends to be asked a lot more often during crisis media management situations.

So, it wasn’t surprising to see Michael Gove face these questions during his interview on the Marr programme on Sunday, as he discussed the reopening of schools.

Perhaps what was a little more surprising was that the questions caused such an experienced media operator so much trouble and resulted in damaging headlines.

The problems began when presenter Andrew Marr asked the politician whether he could ‘guarantee’ the teachers would be safe when they return to the classroom.

Mr Gove responded by saying ‘yes’, before elaborating on that answer and explaining why he felt that was the case.

This in itself, was a problematic response, effectively making Mr Gove a hostage to fortune.

But this was compounded later on when he faced further 'guarantee' questions and appeared to backtrack on what he had previously said:

Marr: “You can sit here and guarantee that no teacher is going to catch coronavirus as a result of going back to school?”

Gove: “Well, the only way to ensure that you never catch coronavirus is to stay at home completely. There is always, always, always, in any loosening of these restrictions a risk of people catching the coronavirus. We can make these workplaces safe. You can never eliminate risk, but as we know, it is the case that it is extremely unlikely that any school is likely to be the source of a COVID outbreak.

Marr: “Isn’t the truth that you say ‘we can keep them safe’, but you can’t guarantee they won’t catch coronavirus? Isn’t the truth that teachers, like other people will have to take personal risk by going back to work?”

Gove: “Of course. You can try to insulate yourself completely from any risk. You can stay at home and hope that you won’t catch the virus or be exposed to other risks. But the whole point about life is that you need to manage risk in a way that keeps people as safe as possible.”

It would be fair to say that the interview performance left Mr Gove facing some horrible headlines:

Michael Gove backtracks on ‘guarantee’ that teachers will be safe at school Metro

Coronavirus: Michael Gove contradicts himself moments after ‘guaranteeing’ teachers will be safe at school Independent

Coronavirus: Michael Gove guarantees teacher safety before U-turn Daily Mail

So, what should Mr Gove have done differently and what media training lessons can other spokespeople learn from this performance?

One of the problems with this type of question is that it creates a temptation to offer a guarantee. It sounds bold and reassuring.

But that approach, as Mr Gove found out, takes spokespeople down a dangerous path, because offering any guarantee is riddled with risk - in virtually every crisis situation it is almost impossible to make such a promise with any confidence.

Issuing a guarantee simply makes organisations and their spokespeople hostages to fortune, promising something they cannot realistically live up to.

It is a response that can tee up future embarrassment.

But this question can easily feel like a no-win situation, because saying that you can’t confirm something bad won’t happen again, or that there is no risk, can also create the sort of uninspiring headlines that you don’t need when trying to manage a crisis and restore confidence.

If Mr Gove had instead adopted that approach, he may have found himself reading headlines like ‘Gove refuses to guarantee teacher safety’.

So, if guaranteeing something won’t happen again is fraught with danger and saying that you cannot make any promises also 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.

Mr Gove, for example, could perhaps guarantee that the government and schools are doing ‘everything possible to minimise risk to teachers’ and then give examples of the steps that have been taken,

In other examples, away from coronavirus, a CEO, 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 programme for staff.

These responses all sound positive, proactive and confident, but importantly, they do not commit the organisation to anything it cannot live up to. Nor will it create the damaging headlines about being unable to offer a guarantee.

Of course, the journalist could push and ask whether your response is a guarantee that the same thing won’t happen again.

The key here is to avoid getting drawn into answering this exact question, and instead, repeat what you can guarantee.

There might not be any guarantees in life, particularly during this hugely challenging time, but we promise this is the best way to approach a question which trips up many spokespeople – even those with a huge number of media interviews under their belts.

Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers. 

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