The hardest questions from journalists are often the ones where you can’t tell the truth and you can’t lie.
If you are not used to corporate life you will be quick to judge this post as more evidence of spin doctors’ corrosive effect on society. But I have learnt that there are plenty of occasions – totally ethical circumstances – when it is not possible or sensible to tell the truth. And I for one am not sure UK Prime Minister Theresa May was telling the truth when she let it be known she plans to lead the Tories into the next election.
But let’s start at the beginning. When working out prepared reactive lines to tough questions, those where you can’t tell the truth and you can’t lie are in a category all of their own.
There are some of the more straight forward ones. They were some of the hardest questions but over the years others have found the right phrase and now everyone uses it. In the trade we call all of these phrases a ‘close down’.
Sorry that is commercially confidential
Companies often have numbers that they do not want to release for perfectly valid commercial reasons. This might be as simple as ‘what is your margin on this?’ or ‘how many deals are in the pipeline?’ or more specifically ‘I heard your margins are being squeezed and are now down below 12%. Can you confirm that?” In these cases it is easiest to be straight with a journalist and say ‘sorry that is commercially confidential’.
We never comment on market rumours
If your listed company is in the process of doing due diligence ahead of a takeover bid you are legally obliged not to disclose this to one set of shareholders ahead of another. It has to be announced to the whole market at the same time. You have no choice but to keep it under wraps before the announcement. So if a journalist asks directly ‘are you about to buy xyz company? ’ you will have to fall back on the well understood stock answer ‘we never comment on market rumours’.
The market sets the share price
Similarly, a senior executive should not share an opinion on his own company share price. It would be ill advised to say ‘my shares are undervalued’ to one journalist because again if there is something to be shared on this you must tell all investors at the same time. The stock answer here is ‘we just run the business and let the market set the price’.
However, that still leaves plenty of common but trickier questions that need a bit more thought.
Difficult questions can, for example, arise if a member of staff has been ‘let go’ for some major issue; it may have been incompetence or something illegal that never went to court. You can’t say publicly what you believe to be true because you could be sued for slandering the individual. A standard answer would be ‘I am not going to comment on personnel issues’ although this is harder to sustain the more senior the person in the spotlight.
How long do you plan to be in the job? When will you retire? Or any version of this is another question a senior leader is ill advised to answer. It is well known that as soon as a decision to go is announced, power starts to drain away from that person and the troops line up behind one or other of the potential successors. In business life we normally advise a dismissive ‘when there is any announcement to be made on that I will let you know’. But the more senior you are, the more your shareholders and customers will demand to know.
Theresa May’s dilemma
This is exactly the dilemma Theresa May faced last week.
Having experienced life as a ‘lame duck leader’ after the general election, and having perhaps recovered somewhat from that, I am guessing she would be reluctant to do anything to undermine her own power again. But the problem she faced, from the moment the election result was confirmed, was people speculating on her future.
This was pushed to the top of the news agenda with a flurry of reports about her plans to leave the job. I think timing is also an issue here because she had a number of lobby correspondents on the plane with her to Japan. That sort of event always involves some cosy briefings between the PM and the press. The ‘will you stay?’ question was guaranteed to come up. It is one of the hardest questions any leader can face. Given the circumstances, she decided to quash the story and to go with a definite ‘I am staying’, ‘I am not quitter’ and ‘yes, I intend to fight the next election’.
[Personally, I am not convinced by the ‘I am here to stay’ statements. If I was in her shoes and – just imagine – I was keen to go after the Brexit negotiations, I certainly wouldn’t confirm this. And in her particular circumstances there is no dismissive phrase that would not have the same effect as saying ‘yes, I plan to go’. It seems to me she has to pretend to be staying. I am not saying she is definitely being misleading, just that she might be.
On the other hand, I have been more cautious than most about writing Mrs. May off as there have been many amazing political comebacks in my time. Plus, while May is at the moment rather poor on television and on the campaign trail, she may be a rather good Prime Minister in other ways. And as we see in training sessions time and again, people can learn if they put the effort in.]
Anyway, back to the hardest questions. I thought I would end with a warning: from my constant consumption of UK media I would say that Eddie Mair on the BBC Radio 4 PM programme is the best (or worst) journalist for asking impossible questions. This year he asked the BBC’s Director of Radio James Purnell ‘Why do on-air people get paid more if they have a penis?’. I still haven’t worked out what, given the circumstances of that interview, the answer should have been.
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