‘What is Aleppo?’: What to Say to a Journalist When You Can’t Answer a Question

what is aleppo, gary johnson,

In a Sept. 8 "Morning Joe" interview, MSNBC correspondent Mike Barnicle asked Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson, "What would you do, if elected, about Aleppo?" To which Johnson responded, "What is Aleppo?" Within minutes, the former governor was being mocked on Twitter and covered by scores of online news outlets, many of which posited that the gaffe was an indication of a clueless foreign policy.

Source: MSNBC

Barnicle, answering Johnson's question, noted the city's central role in the outpouring of Syrian refugees. Johnson responded, "OK, got it. Got it." He pushed forward with his overall stance on Syria, calling the situation "a mess" and suggesting the U.S. partner with Russia to address the conflict.

Johnson's question looked particularly bad coming from a presidential candidate, but as any longtime media trainer knows, being caught off-guard or having a brain freeze during a media interview can happen to any spokesperson or company executive, at any time and in any context. It's all about training for those terrible moments.

Media trainer Andy Gilman, president and CEO at CommCore Consulting Group, says Johnson's "OK, got it" recovery could have been better from a PR perspective. "He could have been more human once he realized he made a mistake," says Gilman. He could have said: "I'm sorry Mike, I do know about Aleppo but I blanked for a second. Here's what I can say on the subject..."

Perhaps a little bit too late, Johnson did take a more human approach post-interview, stating, "I'm incredibly frustrated with myself." His team released an official statement in the hours following the interview, taking the "I'm only human" route: "I blanked. It happens, and it will happen again during the course of this campaign."

The following list of bridging, blocking and pivoting statements from Gilman would help any CEO, PR pro or presidential candidate in those tense moments when they have to contend with their own Aleppo-type questions from journalists:

"I am not familiar with the specifics of that question, but what I can say about the subject is..."

"I want to give you the best information on that subject, so I'll need to check on the details. In general..."

"If you don't mind, let me respond with the question that our customers (clients) have been asking."

"I'm sure our competitors would like to know the answer, so I won't go into too much detail. What I can share is..."

"That question is one of litigation (or personnel records), so I can't answer with the specifics.  What I can say about the issue is..."

"I'm not familiar with the data you mention in the question. Here's the data I do know..." 

"You are the first person to let me know about the situation. I would like to respond, but first I need you to share what you know."  (The goal here is to buy think time to formulate a response).

Follow Sophie: @SophieMaerowitz

Follow Andy: @agilman