Monday, July 21, 2008

The great art of playing dumb

When in doubt... when confronted with out of the blue questions... when you just don't want to say something to a reporter at that very moment... when you need some time to sort it all out... you can just use those magic three words and they'll set you free, at least for a little while...

"I don't know."

I've been phoned by reporters over the years asking if this client's property is up for sale, if that person is leaving, if this company is buying that company, and plenty of queries, some actually veering into the ridiculous.

The corporate world is full of leakers, motivated by revenge, competition or nothing better to do. Not all these leaks are true, as they can merely drag somebody through the mud and play head games through the press. With bloggers and journalists relentlessly competing for news and rumors, they often (but not always) have to check on their truthfulness, no matter how far-fetched the news they've been given. So the odds have increased of public relations reps being on the receiving end of these queries.

Now it is quite possible that you may genuinely not know the answer to the question. Or you may very well know the answer, but you haven't articulated it yet or need to buy time to develop a suitable response.

And that's where those magic three words come in -- "I don't know."

The words "I don't know" are innately born into just about every human being. It develops as a Pavlovian reaction when quizzed by a parent at an early age. For example, a parent asks, "How did those drawings of flowers get on the ceiling?" Or "Who cut eye holes into my hat?" And your reply was instantaneous: "I don't know."

"I don't know" can mean a whole world of things, if you stop and think about it. You don't know the answer... perhaps there is no answer... or there is an answer and you just don't know it yet... or the question is just too hard to answer. There are many mysteries in this universe, ranging from crop circles to just why your first girlfriend broke up with you, and you can't always be in a position to know the answers the exact moment the phone rings, right?

There's nothing insulting about saying "I don't know." Wheels turn internally in many ways and ideally, you're in the loop corporately, but the larger the company, the tougher it is to know every little deal or quirk of human behavior playing out on different floors and myriad departments. Sometimes you just need to see for yourself if what the reporter is asking about is actually true -- not the most pleasant way of discovering news, but better late than never.

"I don't know" is the great placeholder, the pause button to buy time. You are not giving false information for the record. You are not putting your foot in your mouth. You actually appear to be a human being with real faults. You're not saying the infamous "No comment" (yet). Nobody is forcing you to say anything on the record.

After saying "I don't know," you then say the following words: "What's your deadline? I'll be back to you as soon as I find out and I'll give you an official reply."

Now you do one of two things: 1) Find out what the heck is going on or 2) come up with a suitable response. Ahh. Now doesn't that feel better?

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