Spokesperson shows how to handle a hypothetical question

If you’ve been on one of our media training courses before, you’ll know journalists love to speculate about the future.

‘What would happen if?’ is a question that regularly comes up in media interviews.

But while predicting the future may sound fun, it can lead spokespeople down a dangerous path.

Journalists are obsessed with the future. And they love conflict and controversy.

It is something we talk about during our media training. We use the TRUTH acronym to bring clarity to what makes something newsworthy.

The second T stands for Trouble – the other letters, if you need reminding, mean Timely, Relevant, Unusual and Human.

And that trouble element is often introduced through questions that invite spokespeople to describe what might happen in a hypothetical situation or predict what could happen in the future.

I saw a great example of this last week while watching BBC Breakfast.

Anna Blackburn, CEO of Beaverbrooks, appeared in the studio to discuss the implications for the retail sector of covid restrictions being removed.

And in just the second question presenter, Charlie Stayt posed a hypothetical scenario. He wanted to know what the store’s staff would do when a customer opted not to wear a mask.

He said: “Let me present you with a scenario on Monday that is a customer turns up who may well have been in touch in advance, and you know wants to spend some money.

“And they get to the store and say ‘I don’t need to wear a make anymore, and I’m trying on jewellery, so I don’t have to wear one’ – what happens next?”

Here’s how Ms Blackburn responded.

“Well, our preference will be for customers to wear masks. The feedback we are getting generally is that customers want these measures to still be in place.

“I think that what we would do in that situation is that we would still serve that customer. We will have notices up asking them to wear masks, and we will have masks available if they want them. But because we have the Perspex screen and because our teams will still be wearing face masks, that double layer of protection will still be there for our customers.

“We are not going to enforce something – we don’t want to get into that situation with customers. But we will absolutely be requesting that customers wear them.”

I think that is a pretty good response. Ms Blackburn answered the question and used her response to repeat her messages about the safety measured in her stores.

And while she is clearly in favour of masks, she stopped short of insisting they must be worn.

 

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This feels like a sensible approach when the wearing of masks currently seems as divisive as when the country was deciding to leave the EU.

Had she said they would refuse to serve customers without masks, the story would have had more of that trouble element we have been discussing. It probably would have generated extensive media coverage and seen the company name trend on social media.

It felt like a carefully prepared response to a question that had been anticipated.

And, while the scenario was hypothetical, it is also one that is likely.

But not all hypothetical questions are like this.

One of the big challenges spokespeople face with this type of question is that they can be as sensational as the journalist likes.

And they can draw people into making guesses about what might happen years in the future.

And that can obscure their position, set them up for making statements they cannot support and make them a hostage to fortune.

It can also become the focus of the story, ensuring the message they had wanted to get across doesn’t get heard.

So how can you deal with hypothetical questions, particularly the more speculative ones that could be harder to anticipate?  

On our media training courses, we stress the importance of spokespeople staying in the present and sticking to what they know, rather than making guesses about the future.

So, for those hypothetical questions that invite wild speculation, briefly acknowledge the question and explain why you can’t answer it. And then steer the conversation back to your message.

You could say something like:

“I don’t want to speculate on that, but what I can tell you is…”

“Right now, what I think we should focus on is…”

“You’re referring to a hypothetical situation. What I can say is…”

 

Our advice is always “if you don’t know, don’t guess”. And if the last 18 months of living in a pandemic have taught us anything, it is surely that the future is almost impossible to predict.

 

Need a little more help? Have a chat with one of our account managers about our range of training options, including bespoke and ready-to-go online courses.

You could also download our FREE media interview preparation guide.

 

 

Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 35 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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