You’ve probably heard this advice before: When a journalist asks you a question containing a flawed premise, you should challenge the question.
That’s smart advice—but it’s also incomplete. That’s because the advice is almost always intended to apply to unfair questions. As an example, a reporter might ask:
“Since your company is suffering from unusually high turnover, how will you remain competitive this year?”
If that premise is incorrect, you might push back politely but directly by saying:
“Actually, that’s not quite right. Our turnover is close to the industry average—and there’s been no turnover at all on our executive team for the past three years.”
But there’s another type of “incorrect premise” question that can be equally—or even more—damaging.
While most “incorrect premise” questions are negative in tone, some are overly charitable. And if you bite on the reporter’s overly charitable bait, your response can make you appear self-indulgent, self-pitying, or both.
For example, let’s say your company made a product—a poorly designed auto part—that is likely responsible for four deaths. The reporter might ask the company’s CEO, Bob Miller, this question:
“You make more than ten million auto parts each year, and only four have been linked to deaths. Do you ever feel that it’s a bit unfair for your company to be viewed as irresponsible when you have such an impressive safety record?”
You might agree with that premise, but agreeing with the question won’t do you any favors. If you say anything remotely close to “yes,” here’s how that devastating two-minute news segment might play out:
:00 – :20 Reporter sets up the piece
:20 – 1:20 Interviews with the grieving mother of one victim and the sister of another. Both of them cry throughout the segment; both blame the auto parts manufacturer for the deaths.
1:20 – 1:40 A government official says he plans to call for an investigation of the company which, he says, appears to have a negligent manufacturing process.
1:40 – 1:45 Reporter voice over: “But Bob Miller of Giant Manufacturing said it’s unfair that his company is being labeled as reckless.”
1:45 – 1:55 Bob Miller sound bite: “We have a long safety record, and it’s a bit unfair for everyone to be piling on right now.”
1:55 – 2:00 Reporter close
A BETTER APPROACH
When you recognize a reporter’s question as being overly charitable, flag it as a potential trap and disagree with the premise. For this example, you might say:
“I wouldn’t say that. Look, any time a loss of life is involved, it’s a very serious matter and we have a responsibility to investigate whether anything could have been done differently. We’re doing that. And while it’s true that our company has an impressive long-term safety record, we also are well aware that one preventable accident is one too many. If there’s a way can do our work better, we will—and we must.”
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