In the wake of the current and virtually incessant use of the terms “fake news” and “alternative facts”, I will temporarily sidestep that controversy and focus on the challenge of getting a straight answer.  By straight answer, I mean “honest, direct; not curved or crooked; continuing in the same direction without deviating; outright, or candid” as defined in a number of dictionaries.

The inability to get a straight answer occasionally drives me wild. Let me describe the catalyst for this BLOG (or mini-rant). In an interview on the March 2nd broadcast of The Early Edition, Michele Stilwell (the BC Minister of Social Development and Social Innovation), was asked several times for her opinion on whether she felt $610 per month (the current welfare rate which has been unchanged in a decade) was enough to live on. Each time, Minister Stilwell (who I understand is generally a wonderful human being), rather than offering her opinion in answer to a direct and specific question, launched into what sounded like a highly-rehearsed script, much like what one would expect from pulling the string on the back of a Chatty Cathy doll (a popular child’s toy in the early 60’s that had a narrow selection of programmed statements).  It sounded to me like the interviewer was getting a bit exasperated by the lack of a straight answer—and I know I certainly was as a listener.  It felt like the Canadian version of an interview with Kellyanne Conway, Counselor to the US President–that is not meant as a compliment!

Why does this happen?  Why is it so hard to get a straight answer?  What keeps the Phoenix of Straight Answers firmly chained down in the Ashes of Obfuscation? [Note: please feel free to look up the definitions of phoenix and obfuscation to see if I’m using them correctly]. If I was to point a finger, it would be aimed at:

  • Strategic communication specialists who invest a great deal of time and effort in creating clear, consistent messaging to be delivered with the intention of generating a specific public perception, brand impression or other prescribed outcome;
  • Communication coaches (often highly paid PR folks) who help official spokespersons get their organization’s message out regardless of the actual question an interviewer may pose;
  • Interviewers who are looking for a juicy tidbit they can take out of context to generate “news” that will capture people’s attention, get them riled up or increase followership for their station’s newscast;
  • The interviewee’s fear that the interviewer is trying to trick them into providing one of those juicy tidbits mentioned in the previous point;
  • The listening public who wants (consciously or unconsciously) to hear something they can latch onto so they can get excited, angry, passionate, furious, incensed or otherwise emotionally committed;
  • And possibly some other nefarious beings who rejoice in creating chaos, confusion and uncertainty. . . .

Okay, so what’s the answer? How can we release the phoenix?  Well, that would require a much longer BLOG. For now, all I can suggest is “stay tuned” . . . for more Reflections!

David Gouthro, CSP

Can the Phoenix of Straight Answers Rise from the Ashes of Obfuscation? [A]

2 thoughts on “Can the Phoenix of Straight Answers Rise from the Ashes of Obfuscation? [A]

  • A good question to ponder David.

    As a Communication Coach myself (and a strategic communication specialist) I would just like to add that we (as professionals) are not all trying to help politicians and CEOs dodge uncomfortable questions. In fact, an effective and talented communication coach will actually explore strategies for being more comfortable when placed in situations of extreme pressure (like a journalism scrum). The goal to help the speaker be more effective in delivery and responsive to public inquiries.

    I believe a great question might be targeted at why (listeners/rate payers) are willing to accept such little transparency and directness from those we elect to speak on our behalf. Certainly there are instances when the speaker actually has no clear response that is in alignment with company parameters, or they may simply have a differing point of view and are reluctant to share it publically. As you can imagine, there are plenty of times when snippets are taken from a bigger conversation in order to serve up a little controversy – as you stated in your blog post.

    Something to mull over in the next blog perhaps!

  • Politicians, as a matter of party policy may only answer directly if the question is one that offers potential to promote, further or favour the party line. Questions that are designed to shine a negative light on the party’s platform or stance may only be answered with obfuscation or deliberately misleading banter. To do otherwise would be to violate party policy and party unity. Sometimes the questions point toward party policy that has yet to be revealed and/or still in development. In that case rather than simply saying, “I can’t answer that” politicians often go into panic mode and try to redirect the interviewer to another, more palatable subject such as past glories or current successes. In any case, I don’t suppose politicians will become any more forthcoming during our lifetimes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *