I enjoy media training and, like most trainers, focus attention on the Acknowledge – Bridge – Control (or Answer – Transition – Message) model of handling questions. One question I get asked frequently is “Won’t the reporter / audience take it amiss if I don’t answer the question?” Harvard Business has recently posted an interesting working paper that provides empirical evidence that, under certain circumstances, they won’t.
Essentially the paper (supported by a lot of mathetmatics) says that answering the ‘wrong’ question may actually be better than answering the right one. In the study, audiences reacted positively when a respondent (in this case a politician) answered a question different from the one asked but on a similar theme. Credbility was equivalent to the politician answering the question actually asked.
However, the audience penalized the politician when he transitioned to an answer on a totally different topic from the question. Audiences also penalized the politician for answering the actual question but handling it badly. Most interesting to me was that audience recall of the question asked was affected by their assessment of whether the answer had been a good one. In other words, if the politician answered a question with a response to a different issue similar in theme, audinces generally believed that the original question had, in fact, been addressed.
Lessons for media spokspersons? An interview is a conversation and works by the same rules. You have to maintain a logical flow, but you don’t have to slavishly answer every question. It is essential to be prepared with key messages and proofpoints, but the core skill is to tailor your response in such a way as to address the direction of the question, not necessarily the actual content. A good answer to the ‘wrong’ question is more credible than a bad answer to the ‘right’ one.