‘Spin doctors’ — official spokespeople and PR officers — increasingly play a more active role in the interactions between reporters and public figures. Sometimes, they will even sit in on an interview or provide an advance list of topics that must not be raised.
Dennis Barker, a former reporter with the U.K.-based Guardian newspaper, received the following insights about spin-doctors from a British government spokesman (who, not surprisingly, preferred to remain anonymous).
The excuses they give you may be true. But they are still excuses, and you are still entitled to challenge them. “If you cannot tell me, who can?” is a useful question here. Very often, the authority you are questioning may be under orders from above, and may not have been given certain information. In other words, when they stonewall or defend, they are only doing their job. That is the spokesperson’s problem, not yours. Governments cannot allow themselves to be criticised even when they are at fault, except in very exceptional circumstances. Give the spokesperson a chance to put a positive message alongside the negative one and he or she may be more open.
Reporters are concerned with issues that civil society thinks should be important. If they are not significant to the government, that is a legitimate concern. Ask: “Why can’t you discuss this?” or “Why is the government not more worried about this?” A reporter’s priorities may not be the government’s priorities. Government may have “larger concerns.” What makes spokespeople most uncomfortable is being asked about specifics.
Aggressive, novice reporters are easier to satisfy than well-informed, experienced and cool-headed journalists. Spokespeople hope that reporters will not follow through and will be satisfied with generalities. The minute they think: There isn’t a headline in this, you can see them consciously lowering their level of interest. In other words, an important ‘spin’ technique is to downplay news to deflect reporters who are looking for sensation. Journalists who focus on simply finding out new information and persevere even if the facts sound boring, may well get a good story.
If you are told your information is incorrect, do not assume it is. Be prepared to say “If I am wrong, I apologise but…” and ask a follow-up question containing facts to back up your assertion. If they return the question, bounce it back. Some spin doctors will deflect your enquiry with a question of their own.For example, if you ask, “Is it true that the Minister is still having an affair?”, you may be returned with,“Why are you journalists so obsessed with this issue?” You can then respond, “Ms Spokesperson, you must know that nobody is interested in the views of journalists. I’m here to ask the questions our readers want answered. And we have been flooded with letters about the Minister’s marital status, so…?”
If you feel your question has not been answered, persevere: “I do not fully follow that answer. Would you go through it again?” or “I am not sure you have answered my question fully.” This is a polite way of saying it has not been answered at all. Other suggestions: “Do you prefer not to answer that question?”, “What is stopping you from answering?”, “What might happen if you told me?” or “Who can give me that answer?”
Think of varied ways to approach tough questions: Sometimes the best way to ask for difficult information is simply to ask it. But if you are fencing with a skilled spokesperson, you may find that more subtle approaches sometimes work where the direct question will simply be refused. Here are a few suggestions, warn them, and give them a platform: “Perhaps you have read the reports suggesting… Did you…?”, “I know this is an unpleasant issue, but our readers expect me to raise it…”, “Help me to set the record straight…”, “In parliament, the opposition said you…”, or “Would you like to comment on…?”