A headhunter blogging on the topic asked recently what I thought the main differences are between working in journalism and working in communications. Part of my response was that working in journalism means you focus on the questions whilst, in communications, you concentrate more on the answers. It’s a simple and sometimes fraught relationship that can enrich mankind’s bank of knowledge.
The professional life for anyone on either side of the fence is dominated by five words: ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘when’, ‘where’ and ‘why’. Each of these words requires very careful handling – every time a company spokesperson lies to or misleads a journalist a skeleton is consigned to a darkened, underground cupboard to plot its reappearance at a future date and maximise the embarrassment for a senior executive.
Questions and answers are the stock in trade of any journalist or communications department. That’s what attracts the naturally curious and the downright nosey to both the ‘poaching’ and ‘game-keeping’ ends of the business.
Over the years, I’ve amassed a collection of tens of thousands of carefully constructed, reviewed, re-written, edited and legally approved Qs and As for events as diverse as quarterly results, contract wins, new appointments and one marital break up caused by extra curricular events that took place on an overseas business tip.
I also estimate that some where between two and three in every twenty questions anticipated have never been asked – by a journalist, analyst, Member of Parliament, employee or passer by. This isn’t inefficiency. It’s done to satisfy that well-known PR law that the chances that an awkward question will be asked is in direct proportion to your level of preparedness to answer it. The Boy Scouts had that particular law under control.
Good questions need good answers. “No comment” is an answer that no spokesperson should give in response to a question because it not only defies the dictionary definition of ‘spokesperson’, but to the eyes and ears of the general public, it sounds remarkably like “Yes. We’re guilty as charged and have something to hide.”
For the communications department, difficult questions from stakeholders fall into a number of key categories, including:
The Embarrassing (“So, Mr Clinton, can you tell us more about what happened in the Oval Office with Ms Lewinsky?)
The Awkward (“Mr Goodwin, your views please on whether the bank’s collapse was the result of corruption, or merely incompetence?”)
The Unwelcome (How would you describe being the overlooked partner in a relationship, Mr Clegg?”)
The cheeky (“Now that you’ve been charged, Mrs Brooks, can you tell us if you’ve had any supportive texts from the Prime Minister?”)
Whether embarrassing, awkward or unwelcome, there are two lessons I’ve learned over the years about answering difficult questions. The first is to be entirely honest. The second is to be brief. The more words you use to answer a simple question, the less likely people will believe that you understood the first lesson.