The Other "What Is Your Personal Opinion?" Trap

In The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview, I wrote about the hazards of answering a “personal opinion” question.

You’ll find that excerpt below—but after reading it, you’ll find a second trap question the book doesn’t address—and it’s one you should be aware of before a reporter catches you off guard.
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“Imagine that you’re the spokesperson for a government agency and your division just passed a new regulation to enhance the testing of imported beef.

Despite the department’s enthusiasm for the new rules, you don’t personally believe the new regulations will keep beef safer. In fact, you’re convinced the rules were passed primarily to satisfy safety advocates—not to protect consumers—and you’re pretty sure the move will ultimately cost diners more money for no good reason.

So when a reporter asks whether you personally believe the regulations will help, you have a dilemma: Should you say what you really think or represent the views of the agency?

These conflicts between personal opinion and company policy occur frequently, and I regularly see them play out in our media training workshops.

The correct answer is almost always to speak on behalf of your company, organization, or agency. There are exceptions, of course: if you have a strong moral objection to the view you’re being asked to espouse, you’re probably not the right spokesperson for that topic. But it’s usually better to handle those disputes internally rather than airing them in the press. Otherwise, it’s probably time to seek new work.

Some spokespersons wonder whether they can express a personal opinion so long as they tell the reporter:

“This is my personal opinion, not the view of the company.”

No way. The reporter will still identify you as a representative of the company, and your conflicting view will undercut the view you’re being paid to articulate.

Instead, tell the reporter that you’re speaking as a representative of the company and that it would be inappropriate for personal views to enter into the conversation.

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That excerpt addresses what to say when your personal opinion differs from the corporate talking point. But personal opinion questions can be traps even if you agree with the policy.

Here’s how that situation might play out:

Reporter: “Do you agree with your company’s policy to allow employees to work from home two days a week?”
You: “Yes, absolutely.”
Reporter: “Your company also put into place a policy that cut paid maternity leave from four months to two. Do you agree with that?”
You: “The company view is that that was a necessary step to save on labor costs during a tough economic time.”
Reporter: “But I’m asking you your personal opinion. Do you agree with cutting maternity benefits?”
You: “It would be inappropriate to discuss my personal opinion, because I’m speaking as a representative of the company, not for myself.”
Reporter: “But a minute ago, you told me you agreed with your company’s policy to allow employees to work from home. Why would you share your personal opinion with me about that, but not about maternity leave?”

By answering the first question, you opened the door to having to answer the second one (or at least having your refusal to do so be painted as inconsistent and telling).

Am I suggesting that you never answer a personal opinion question, even when the answer is obvious and might help you? No. But it’s worth being aware of the risk, anticipating the reporter’s follow-up question, and managing your interviewing approach accordingly.

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