Media Training 21: The Secret to Handling Negative Questions

By Gerard Braud

Most questions from most reporters are negative. News in general tends to be negative because it is usually about serious change or a disaster. I wish news wasn’t negative, but I spent 15 years in the business trying to change that and couldn’t. Then I’ve spent every year since 1994 trying to change it and I haven’t made any progress.

With that said, I’m going to teach you the secret to answering a negative question. Let me go through the various steps first and then I’ll explain each step.

You must:

• Listen to how the question is phrased.

• Ask yourself, is it a negative question?

• If so, realize you are not obligated to directly answer the negative question.

• Determine if the negative question can be phrased in a more positive manner.

• If it can, mentally ask yourself the positive question.

• Then, answer the question using a positive answer that responds to the positive question.

Of course, the time you have to do this is a nanosecond. But much like internalizing key messages is done through daily repetition, this skill set must also be practiced in daily conversation.

Let’s break it down using an actual case study. In the late 1990’s, a chemical company wanted to build a $700 million dollar facility in the industrial corridor along the Mississippi River about 40 miles upstream from New Orleans.

Ten year’s earlier, as a reporter I covered a Green Peace anti-pollution campaign along the river and nicknamed the area, “Cancer Alley.”  During a 2 week period of protesting, they convinced many people that cancer rates in the area were high and that the cancer was caused by chemical plants.

Scientific proof, however, indicated that cancer rates in the area were no higher than anywhere else in the world. However, mortality rates, especially from lung cancer, were high. That was because smoking rates were high, especially among the poor, who had no health insurance and were generally diagnosed with cancer after it was very advanced.

With that background, imagine the task of trying to build a new chemical plant in “cancer alley.” Despite the jobs it would create and the economic impact, opposition groups were quick to allege that if built, the chemical plant would be a cancer causing polluter.

The turning point in this story came in a news interview where a television reporter asked the company spokesman, “Will this plant pollute?” His answer was, “Well, yes. We have permits from the state of Louisiana to produce caustic chlorine, EDC, VCM and PVC and those permits are essentially a license to pollute.”

There are so many sins committed in this one quote, but let’s stay on task and examine the question first.

Was the question negative? Yes.

What was the question behind the question? It was, “when you build this chemical plant, will it pollute and kill everyone with cancer?”

The spokesperson essentially said yes, the company will kill everyone with cancer and that they had a license to kill.

Could there be a positive version to this same negative question? Sure, a more positive question would have been, “the people in the community are afraid your chemical plant will cause cancer. What assurances can you give them that you can operate in a safe manner?”

Do you see the difference between that question and the original question? Do you see how both questions are essentially asking the same thing?

The proper positive answer should have been, “In order for us to receive permits from the state and federal government, we must promise to be protective of human health and the environment. Let me tell you how we plan to do that…”

In addition to not answering the question in a positive manner, the spokesperson committed a whole host of sins. The sad thing about the original answer is the spokesperson was attempting to be honest, but in the end he was actually telling more of a lie than he was telling the truth. He was honest to a fault. Everything we do as humans causes pollution, from driving our car to flushing the toilet. And while there are always some emissions from chemical plants, much of the $700 million dollar price tag would be pollution controls.

Additionally, because the spokesman’s personality type was geared toward being a details person, he began listing the chemicals the company would make by name. To the average person in the audience with a 6th grade education, it was frightening jargon, equal to telling the audience he would be making “ethyl methyl death.”

I’m going to guess the spokesperson did not practice before the interview. What’s sad is I know he went through media training. I was not his trainer but I observed the class as one of the pioneers of media training worked with him.

Finally, I am sure the spokesman did not attach a dollar to every word that came out of his mouth, because the $700 million dollar plant was never built and his quote was one of the main reasons.

To learn how to answer negative questions in a positive manner, you have to practice this skill daily as you practice your key messages.

In our next lesson we’ll examine the role passion plays in media relations.

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