What not to do when a journalist asks if you’re racist

Step one: don't be racist. Step two: follow the rest of these steps.

27 Apr 2022
Written by
Ben Hart
How To
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Photo-illustration: Emily Thiang; original image Paul Townley (CC PDM 1.0)

Welcome to PR for Real Life: a series that takes lessons from the mysterious, occasionally seedy but actually quite useful world of PR and applies them to, well, real life.

When you’re the subject of a criticism you perceive as being harsh or unfair, the natural response is to refute it directly. “I am not a Big Bang Theory superfan,” you may feel like saying—and that’s probably quite a sound approach if it’s an argument going on between private people, behind closed doors.

But if you’re a public figure and the accusation is coming from a member of the media, the same response can be the worst possible option.

Why? Because the soundbite or quote that the reporter will use will almost certainly be the direct rebuttal. And this only acts to highlight the negative in the minds of the viewer or listener.

Think of the countless times Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook” has been used over the decades to underline the fact that that’s exactly what he was.

Or the more recent case of Prince William, whose little brother Harry and sister-in-law Meghan had just done a sit-down interview with Oprah in which much tea was spilled about alleged racism in the Royal Family.

Leaving an event the next day, William was accosted by waiting journalists.

Reporter:  “And can you just let me know, is the Royal Family a racist family, Sir?”

William: “We’re very much not a racist family.”

Cue a collective facepalm from every media relations expert on the planet.

Of course, what Willam should have done (apart from not commenting at all) was take back control of the story from the reporters by reframing an answer in the positive.

“We believe everyone is equal,” he might have said. Responding this way would have delivered to the nightly news bulletins a clear message that effectively rebutted the attack without also amplifying it.

Because Prince William already has his work cut out for him if he’s to convince the world his family hasn’t been a little iffy when it comes to race. Positive framing mightn’t be enough to turn around centuries of colonial baggage. But it’s a start.

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