Double-talk is talk that has no real meaning or is intended to confuse, according to the Cambridge Dictionary.
Merriam-Webster defines double-talk as “language that appears to be earnest and meaningful but in fact is a mixture of sense and nonsense." Its second definition: "Inflated, involved, and often deliberately ambiguous language.”
A PR dictionary would add another definition of double-talk: “PR flimflam…language used when a reporter asks a question of a communicator that she/he would rather not answer...used predominately in PR crisis situations.”
A Tactic to Buy Time
When executives or communicators are not ready to answer a question, but don’t want to act like they are hiding from the press, they can say, “I have to check on that and I will get back to you.” And then you must do so. This tactic provides time to draft a reply. In addition, it gives you time to have attorneys clear the answer.
On the other hand, using the above-mentioned shifty techniques is an excellent way to make certain your responses will not be believed. It's also a good way to damage your reputation with the press. In our business, too many people issue statements that are meaningless.
As a reporter and editor, when I couldn’t get straight answers to questions, I wouldn't quote the person.
How to Answer Media Questions
- Clearly and concisely
- Never use “PR talk”
- Never mislead or lie to a reporter
- If your PR crisis concerns legalities, always have an attorney clear your statement
- Never lie to protect senior executives, no matter how lofty their titles
Speed Can Kill
Too many people in our business feel that they must respond immediately to media questions. Respond when you are ready. Do what's best for the brand. Sometimes that means not responding to media questions immediately. You can say, “We're looking into the situation. We have no statements at this time.”
That might not make a reporter happy, but remember, it’s the brand that is paying your salary. And it’s not a PR speak statement, flimflam or double talk. Those are meant to camouflage a situation or mislead reporters. What you've said is a clear, declarative response to a question. It’s a tactic that is used too infrequently. Use it until management decides to speak. Hopefully the company will speak honestly, instead of using corporate talk.
PR Firm Rules
If you're a brand communicator or at a PR firm, there are a few things to remember about answering internal questions. Never lie to protect a senior executive or a colleague. As I have written on this site previously, if you want loyalty at work, bring your dog to the office.
I also advise doing the following for your protection: Always take notes during meetings, especially during programming sessions. At a firm, write a call report after every discussion with a client. This will provide evidence that you are not responsible if there is negative fall-out because of the failure of a PR program.
Caveat: A written account might not save you. But as my physics teacher once told me, “If you have any chance of receiving a passing grade, I suggest you get tutoring. It might not help, but it can’t hurt."
Arthur Solomon was SVP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller. A former journalist and frequent contributor to PR News, he is on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee.