We can guarantee that using the word “guarantee” during an interview, news briefing, or any media encounter is often a very bad idea. Wait… what? That’s right. And here’s why: when a reporter uses the word “guarantee” in a question, he/she is hoping to coax you into delivering a sound bite or quote that could come back to bite you. It’s one of the media’s oldest traps.
Let’s take a typical example. “Can you guarantee that a serious accident will never happen in your workplace?” Even if you have excellent safety policies, you shouldn’t respond, “Yes, I can guarantee we will never have a serious accident.” The reporter will likely use that quote. If the unthinkable happens a month later and you do have an accident, your answer will come back to haunt you.
By the same token, you shouldn’t respond, “No, I can’t guarantee we will never have a serious accident.” That is a negative quote the reporter will almost certainly use and it won’t make you and your company look good.
Fox’s Chris Wallace asked a version of this trap question during an interview with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on the physical and human infrastructure bills pending in Congress. The Secretary did not take the bait.
While Buttigieg’s response was not perfect, he avoided the guarantee trap and delivered his key messages. To be sure, this doesn’t mean you should never use the word. In response to Wallace’s question, Buttigieg could have said, “What I can guarantee is the Biden Administration is working hard with Congress to pass these bills.” Or, in our earlier example about workplace safety, you could respond, “We can guarantee that safety is a top priority and we are doing everything we possibly can to avoid accidents.” These uses of the word can help you with positive messaging without painting you into a corner.
So, use the word sparingly and with care. The guarantee trap is one you don’t want to step into.