Answer the Question

“Do the right thing. It will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”

– Mark Twain

The wry wisdom of Samuel Clemens resonates in the modern world of communications.  I often tell clients, particularly those facing crisis, that the best strategy is always to do the right thing.

In the same vein, when I media train people I advise them to answer questions.  Sounds simple and obvious, right?  But after decades as a journalist interrogating politicians I know that their handlers frequently advise them to ignore questions and simply regurgitate their message track.

It’s wrong.  Wrong, not only on the public service level but also wrong on the crass political level.

Witness the recent spectacle of Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer being asked in a post-election scrum whether he believes being gay is a sin.  His answer did him and the Conservative Party no favours.  If you watch the video, notice the bleak expressions on the faces of the Tories standing behind him.  If there were word balloons above their heads, they might read “oh no, not again.”

The easy and obvious answer for Scheer would have been “no”.  It would also have been the right thing to do, both on a public policy basis and as a political tactic.  But Scheer did not give a straight answer–his response was indirect and unhelpful, beginning with  “our party is inclusive, we believe in the equality rights of all Canadians”.   The sentiment was laudable, but it should have been the back half of his answer, following the word “no”.

Scheer endured repeated questions on social issues throughout the campaign and responded with similar circumlocution.  In post-election post-mortems, even staunch Conservatives called the tactic disastrous.  Slippery answers served only to support Liberal talking points, raised damaging suspicions and likely cost the party crucial seats in suburban Toronto.

By comparison, look at the answer Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg gave to a tough question in the first of this year’s debates.  A police shooting of a black man in South Bend, Indiana produced searing criticism of his leadership as mayor, particularly in attracting minorities to serve on the force. His answer was unflinching and direct.  “Because we didn’t get it done” was his forthright opening, followed by an admission that the USA needs to do better.

Buttigieg has risen from an obscure municipal position to be a top tier candidate in part because of his preternatural eloquence.

In preparing clients for interviews, communications consultants always begin with developing the key messages—the most important bits of information that they must convey.  That’s crucial.  But the second part of the process must always involve anticipating the toughest questions and developing credible answers.  Unlike some political operatives, I warn clients that evasion is risky. An adept interviewer will always expose you and the result can be painful to watch.

It is a simple, yet powerful and effective tactic:  answer the question.  It is also the right thing to do.