Media interviews: When you’re right, shut up

Interviews, discretion

Some of you might recognise the quote in the headline up there. It’s from a poem by Ogden Nash and the complete quote is “when you’re wrong, admit it; when you’re right, shut up”. But what has this to do with interviews?

The fact is, it’s useful advice for media interviews as well as life in general (it’s probably saved many marriages). Your competitor may well be going down the pan. People might actually be stupid to spend money on a named brand rather than your offering. But is telling them so through the media going to do any good?


You’ll probably be familiar with the president of the USA’s Twitter habit. Earlier this week he used the social network to respond to criticisms about how he handled a conversation with a war widow – a Gold Star widow in American jargon. She said he made her cry by saying her husband knew what he was getting into and not remembering his name. Here is his Twitter response:

Now, I don’t know Trump and I wasn’t there. I’m no fan but in fairness, some of the comments on his Tweet indicate that there is a recording and transcript around (I do ask myself why) and that Trump may have a point.

From which I conclude that a distressed widow might not have been thinking completely rationally. This isn’t a surprise.

Let’s assume, then, that Trump is factually correct on this occasion. I still contend that the president of the USA, the most powerful man in the world, going onto Twitter and implicitly suggesting that a gold star widow is being dishonest, is unwise. He has overlooked the weight his office carries, he’s forgotten the emotional state she is likely to be in. His wording is actually quite moderate but it doesn’t matter – in the context of his other Tweets, this is seen as lashing out.

I’ve come across other examples. There was an elderly woman in America who gave interviews about how the tobacco companies, by marketing their product as harmless in previous decades, had effectively killed her. The lawyers cottoned on to the fact that she’s worked with asbestos so it wasn’t clear-cut. The PR people’s counsel was that it didn’t matter whether the tobacco people were right or wrong; massive cigarette corporations going after an elderly, dying woman in the courts was never going to look good.

Your interviews

So let’s take an example that might occur in a more everyday situation. A disgruntled and fired employee is spreading malicious gossip about your company.

You can dismiss these as from an unreliable source. You have proof of his or her dishonesty and can furnish the press with it. But should you? Is this going to look any better than the most powerful president in the world criticising a widow for inaccurate recollections at probably the most difficult time of her life?

OK, it’s not going to be that bad. But sometimes, even when you’re right, shutting up can be the better part not only of valour, but of coming out looking reasonable at the end.

Do you need help with interview practice or media communications? I can help – email by clicking here and I’ll look forward to working with you.

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