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Media Relations - Pot Czar gives example of when a media question shouldn't be answered

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In our media training courses we often get into discussions on when it is best not to answer reporter's questions.


Our philosophy is not to be evasive, that if it is a legitimate question, it deserves an honest answer. But that's not to say there aren't times when you simply shouldn't answer a question, and especially not answer it with a simple yes or no. Not because the answer would be embarrassing, but because it would take the focus off the bigger issue. Our advice in these situations is to simply explain why you can't, or won't, answer.


A great example of this cropped up recently, when Mark Kleiman was interviewed by various media, including Jian Ghomeshi on CBC's Q and by Erin Burnett on CNN's Outfront.


Kleiman, who has now been labeled with the nickname The Pot Czar, is an academic who specializes in drug policy. He was recently appointed as the lead guy to figure out how to roll out the marijuana legalization law in Washington State, on the heels of people there voting in favour of such legalization.


So as you might expect, Burnett, Ghomeshi and probably everybody else who has interviewed him on his appointment, wanted to know whether he ever indulges.


He refused to say. And in this case, that was the right response, because neither a yes nor no answer would serve him well, and his explanation made it crystal clear why.


Here's his explanation from the Ghomeshi interview “If I say no I never smoked, then I place myself as “no I don't know anything about this stuff you can ignore what I say”. If I say yes I smoked then I'm a lawbreaker and you can ignore what I say”.


He's absolutely right. There is no up side if he gives an honest answer to that question, even though it is a fair question to ask. And so while he wouldn't want to be dishonest, the best course is to explain why he is refusing to answer.


The take away from this is that you do have a responsibility to answer legitimate questions, but you get to decide how to respond, and often a yes or no answer will not serve you well. And in some cases, like this one, failure to give a definitive response is appropriate, but it should be accompanied by the rationale of why you are refusing to answer.  


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