By Jennigay Coetzer

Assumption is dangerous when interacting with the mediaSpokespeople might like to note that the saying “To assume makes an ass out of you and me” is particularly applicable to media interviews.


Human beings in general are notorious at making assumptions. We assume those we are communicating with are on the same wavelength as we are and are receiving the information as we intended them to. But we don’t always do a good job of clearly articulating what we are thinking, and as a result we leave gaps in the information we are imparting.

When we are on the receiving end of this, we mentally fill in the gaps in the fragmented information that would otherwise confuse us, based on our own assumptions, because our brains are designed to do this.

In other words, everyone puts their own interpretation on what is being said to them, depending on factors like social and work experience, cultural background, religion, preconceived ideas, and our own agendas. One top of this we are often distracted by other thoughts that are going on in our minds at the time.

The resulting assumptions can end up in misunderstandings with friends, colleagues, business contacts, customers and anyone else we interact with.

The problem of assumption is magnified when interacting with the media.

As a long time journalist and media trainer I find that spokespeople tend to make a lot of assumptions. For example, they assume prior knowledge on the part of the media interview and the audience they are trying to reach out to and influence.

They also often leave sentences unfinished and assume the journalist can absorb what they are saying as they rush from one point to another like an express train, without pausing for breath.

This could lead to incorrect or misleading information being published in an article or, in the case of radio or TV, giving the wrong impression to listeners and viewers or totally confusing them. Worse, it leaves room for speculation on the part of the journalist – either intentional or unintentional.

Being vague is another pitfall that can lead to misinterpretation. For example, spokespeople will often refer to “they” without specifying which “they” they are referring to.

On receiving this information the journalist, or the live audience, mentally links “they” with a reference the spokesperson previously made to a person or a company. Meanwhile, the spokesperson is talking about another entity entirely that he thinks he has already named, but has only done so in his mind without actually saying it.

The use of unexplained terminology and industry specific or in-company jargon is another issue that can get in the way. So too is the use of smart words because the spokesperson does not want to be seen by his or her peers as being too simplistic.

I have had spokespeople admitting to this last one while I having been interviewing them.

These pitfalls can result in comments being misinterpreted. This is why spokespeople are often heard to say quite indignantly after reading an article in which they were quoted: “My comments were taken out of context!”

I am not saying misinterpretation is never the media interviewer’s fault, but spokespeople can do a lot to ensure that what they are saying is not misunderstood.

Media training is important

This is why media training is so important for those who are committed to being good spokespeople.

Even those who have had previous experience in this area, will benefit from honing their media interview skills.

The right media training will help spokespeople to articulate what they want to say clearly and concisely and create a clear picture in the mind of the media interviewer that will be passed on to their target audience.

It will also help them to stay focused, and make strong statements and get to the point, instead of being vague and going off at a tangent.

A final word about media training

Spokespeople who interact with the media, either directly or when being quoted in press releases, without proper media training are putting their own reputation and their company’s reputation at risk.

Jennigay Coetzer is a freelance  writer, journalist, author and trainer. Email her at jennigay@icon.co.za for more information about her  writing skills workshops and media training workshops or connect with her on LinkedIn. An ebook version of her book A Perfect Press Release – or Not?, a guide to writing press releases, can be downloaded free from her website: www.jennigay.co.zatogether with lots more writing tips. 

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