There are a bunch of PR-isms I’ve come to dislike over the years, but the one I really loathe – which I’ve heard several times over the past few weeks – is “we’re not talking about that today.”
If you’re a journalist who covers technology, you’ve no doubt experienced it. For the regular reader, here’s how it works: The intrepid reporter, attending a product launch or some such event, is interviewing a representative from the company. The journalist asks a question that’s unrelated to the product and the company representative, or perhaps a public relations person within earshot, replies with, “We’re not talking about that today,” and then proceeds to get back on to the topic of whatever it is they’re trying to sell.
In one recent example, a company was showing off its new video game and I asked the creator whether he thought the mainstream had pretty much gotten over its obsession with violence in the medium. He was about to answer, but then a PR person jumped in with, you guessed it, “we’re not talking about that today.”
As PR lingo goes, it’s a particularly offensive line. It has become the modern-day “no comment,” which PR people train their clients not to say because it’s either evasive or makes it sound like the person has something to hide. “We’re not talking about that today” is worse, though, because of the subtext that goes with it, which is: “Hey dummy journalist, we’re controlling this conversation, not you.”
As far as messaging goes, that’s a bad approach. In many ways, a simple “no comment” – which basically says “I don’t want to talk about that” – is better than subtly telling the journalist that they’re not in control of their own interview. In the video game example, the PR person’s response ticked me off enough that I ended the interview.
The larger question this raises is: Who does control an interview? The answer is, of course: it depends. In many cases, the journalist drives the conservation, since he or she is the one asking the questions. The interviewee can steer the talk with whatever answers they come up with, although it’s then the journalist’s option to take control back by pressing certain questions or dropping the topic.
In other cases, particularly where the interviewee is a strong personality, the journalist might just sit back for the ride and let ’em rip. The best example of this that I can recall is my interview with Steel Panther a few years ago. I went in with a list of questions, but tossed them aside when it became clear that I (or anyone, really) wasn’t in control.
The bottom line is, in almost every interview – especially in technology circles – the interviewee is trying to sell the journalist something. Nobody likes to be sold something solely on the seller’s terms, which is why it’s dumb to subtly insult the buyer by trying to exert control over the terms of the deal. That’s what insurance and cellphone companies do, and no one likes them.
So, to any PR people out there reading this (and I know there’s at least a few), please tell your clients to avoid saying, “We’re not talking about that today.” They’re not going to get anywhere with that kind of messaging.