One question that crops up when I’m media training is: what do I do if I don’t know the answer to a journalist’s question? The answer is really simple. Unless the journalist is John Humphrys and it’s an episode of Mastermind, just say you don’t know.
Unless it’s something fundamental to your business, there’s no reason you should know the answer to everything. If you’re the owner of a small business and can’t tell me how many people you employ them I admit I’m likely to start thinking “well if you don’t know, who does?” – but mostly, an interview isn’t a test or a quiz programme. Above all, don’t pretend you do know.
Years ago I attended the launch of a mobile phone. It was very whizzy because it synchronised your diary with Microsoft Outlook on the PC, which is commonplace now but a big wow then.
Only, I’d just bought a Mac. And the Mac didn’t have Outlook at the time. So I asked the CEO: when will this support Mac Calendar, or Microsoft Entourage? (Then the calendaring app for the Mac from Microsoft). He thought about it and then told me, in full view of everyone, that the Mac compatibility would be along in February.
The following day I had a sheepish call from the PR people. They had no idea why their CEO had said this. The Mac had 5% of the desktop market at the time, the PC 95%; there was no commercial imperative to address the Mac stuff at all so the company wasn’t going to bother. With apologies, their CEO had just made something up on the spot.
Luckily I hadn’t written anything. I can only imagine he felt a little insecure about not knowing something, and felt saying something rather than nothing was better. But consider what might have happened if I’d gone ahead and written something before the PR people had been in touch. I’d have put wrong information about his company and its products out there, which would have done neither of us any good.
If you don’t know a figure, if a fact escapes you, if a question isn’t in your area, feel free to tell a journalist you can’t actually answer it. Refer us to your PR team or someone else in your organisation. We may be frustrated but that’s OK, you don’t work for us.
But be secure enough to admit it when you’ve gone blank or never knew something. Nobody should think any less of you, and an awful lot of inaccuracy and misconception in the market can stem from your blurting something out to fill the space – and it’s really not worth it for either of us.