Let’s say you are the spokesperson for an international mining company.
News has broken that three of your mining engineers have been kidnapped somewhere in Africa by a bunch of warlords or group of terrorists.
The media are besieging your headquarters. The 24-hour news stations are alive with speculation as to how they were kidnapped, whether they are dead or alive and, if the former, whether there’s been a ransom demand.
Although you’ve not got much information to go on, you decide, sensibly, that it would be wise to face the media – to send out a signal that the company is across the developing events and is taking seriously the plight of its three employees.
You go out and confront the cameras and, wisely, have a short statement that you read out on behalf of the company, explaining what steps are being taken.
Then you invite questions.
At this point every journalist present shouts a question at you, each question virtually guaranteed to be along the same lines – how did it happen and what’s the fate of the engineers?
You know that any such speculation could endanger the lives of your colleagues or put other employees in danger.
Following up on the “how did it happen” questions, journalists fire off several invitations to you to start speculating. It only takes you, the spokesperson, to lapse momentarily in your choice of words and the story will take off in a whole new direction that backfires on you.
Question 1: “Were they seized from a vehicle while travelling between mines?”
Answer: “For security reasons we’re not yet in a position to issue information on that matter.” (Correct answer)
Question 2: “Did the gang raid the mining compound where the three were working?”
Answer: “As I say, for security reasons we cannot speak at present about the details of this incident.” (Correct answer)
Question 3: “How well trained were the three to deal with a kidnapping?”
Answer: “That’s an area we are looking at.” (Wrong answer)
Headline in tomorrow’s newspapers: “Did kidnapped mining engineers have proper safety training?”
Opening paragraph of one article: “An investigation was under way last night into whether three mining engineers, kidnapped in the Republic of XXX, received adequate safety training from their company before being sent to Africa.”
As far as the journalists are concerned, you didn’t comment of any of the other questions, just the one about security and safety training for your staff. So the question clearly threw you off balance, possibly because you knew in your own mind that it had hit the nail right on the head.
At least, that’s what journalists might infer.
So, that’s why it’s best to hold the line in dealing with journalists and don’t allow them to seduce you into speculation.