How to handle the 'guarantee' question

There’s a tricky question that tends to come up in media interviews during crisis media management incidents.

You’ve probably heard it before - it is the one where a journalist will ask the spokesperson to ‘guarantee’ that what has gone wrong won’t happen again in the future.

Let’s say, for example, that there has been a terrible train crash and people have died. At some point, the CEO of the train operator or perhaps a politician will be asked a variation of "can you guarantee this won’t happen again."

Or perhaps the crisis is a data breach and the spokesperson could well be asked “can you ensure this never happens again?”

The temptation, of course, in both these examples is to issue a guarantee. It sounds bold and reassuring.

But this is a question which can take spokespeople down a dangerous path, because offering this sort of guarantee is riddled with risk, as in virtually every situation it is almost impossible to make such a promise with any confidence.

We would all like to think that lessons will be learnt from crisis media management incidents, but even if improvements are made, no-one can be 100 per cent certain that the same thing could not happen in the future.

Issuing a guarantee simply makes organisations and their spokespeople hostages to fortune, promising something that they can’t live up to.

It is a response which 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 can also create the sort of uninspiring headlines that you really don’t need when trying to manage a crisis and restore confidence in your brand.

Headlines like these:

RBS boss can’t guarantee scandals won’t happen on his watch The Scotsman

Network Rail boss apologises for over running engineering work but says he can’t guarantee it won’t happen again Eastern Daily Press

Heathrow cannot guarantee snow disruption won’t happen again, says airport chief The Telegraph

FAI can’t guarantee staff will be paid due to €18m black hole Herald

Health secretary “can’t guarantee” people won’t die in no-deal Brexit LBC

The biggest mall owner in the US ‘can’t guarantee’ there won’t be more retail wreckage this year CNBC

As you can see, it is a question which can elicit negative headlines.

You might think that saying something along the lines of ‘there are no guarantees in life’ could be a good strategy here. But, it should be avoided as it can be seen as a refusal to issue a guarantee.

So, if guaranteeing something won’t happen again is fraught with danger and saying that you cannot make any promises 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 during the crisis media management incident. A CEO, for example, 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 in to answering this exact question, and instead repeat what you can guarantee.

There might not be any guarantees in life, but we promise this is the best way to approach a question which many spokespeople dread.



*Download our FREE eBook to find out more about planning for a crisis. It includes a checklist to helping you identify the right spokesperson, messaging templates and a risk register to help you identify your organisation’s vulnerabilities.



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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