What happens when a reporter asks a question you don’t want to answer?
Do you: A) Ignore the question. B) Tell a favorable story, even if it means you are lying. C) Tell the truth, even if it means your business or image could be harmed.
The answer should be simple. It’s something we learned as children. Tell the truth or else you will get caught, but for whatever reason, politicians, businessmen, bankers, actors — anyone with a high profile — tries to stretch the truth during a crisis in hopes of preserving their image.
It happened with President Clinton in 1996 when he said he didn’t have sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky. It happened in 2011 with Congressman Anthony Weiner after he denied sending lewd pictures of himself to women across the country. And in 2016, it will happen again. We just don’t know yet who will be the culprit.
Lying is not a crisis communications strategy. A reporter’s job is to uncover the truth, yet so many people seem to believe that if they lie their way out of the crisis, the problem will go away.
It doesn’t work like that because journalists can smell a rat a mile away. It’s part of our training, experience, and intuition that was developed over the years.
When you’re faced with a communications crisis, you never want to ignore the question. It is human nature to suspect when someone doesn’t deny an accusation, he or she must be guilty. Perhaps this is why so many politicians are quick to deny an act even when they know it’s true.
Congressman Weiner later admitted (after he was caught) that he lied because he was embarrassed about sending a picture of his rising boxers to a college student across the country. Presidential candidate John Edwards admitted he lied about having an affair because he wanted to protect his wife who was dying of cancer. We still don’t know whether the publicist for Blake Lively was telling the truth when she said the Gossip Girl actress did not snap naked pictures of herself in front of the mirror, but if it’s true, reporters will soon find out and the Hollywood paparazzi won’t be as forgiving.
Which brings us to the answer for what should you do when reporters ask you questions you don’t want to answer.
Tell the truth, even if it means you or your business might look bad in the short term. This crisis advice also applies to your personal life. Last year, I had a very good friend who lied to me about a situation that truly had no bearing on our friendship. My gut told me she was lying. She didn’t answer the questions I asked. She avoided looking into my eye. She tried to divert the questions with another question (a tactic I teach in my book, Beat the Press: Your Guide to Managing the Media). I believed her until three months later, after her conscience got to her and she told the truth.
In any crisis situation, it’s much easier to manage negative news if the truth is told from day one. The crisis gets harder to manage when you’re trying to justify why deception was used. Americans understand businesses make mistakes, customer service is not always perfect and politicians philander. But when a person lies, trust is lost and that is harder to rebuild after any crisis situation.
So the next time a reporter (or even a friend) asks you a question that you really don’t want to answer, think twice about the consequences of lying. If you’re up against experienced journalists, like Weiner and Clinton both faced, it won’t take long before your lies need more lies to support the story. When that happens, it’s only a matter of time before the crisis explodes in your pants.
Mark Macias is the co-founder of BigBirdFans.com. He produces social media videos for all kinds of clients and consults on publicity campaigns. You can read more at www.MaciasPR.com.