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How to Field Questions From the Public Like a Pro

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No matter where you work, you will at some point have to answer questions from the public. It might be an employee, a journalist, a customer, or even a member of Congress.

Now this may sound obvious, but most of the time people have better things to do than sit down and contact you with their concerns. So if they're exercised enough to do that, there is probably something significant on their minds.

And while you may think it's easy to simply respond, here are a few tips that may help you build your reputation for integrity by handling public inquiries effectively.

Mechanics: Acknowledge the inquiry. Give the question a ticket number. Answer within a reasonable period of time. Make it clear when they should expect to hear from you.

Basic Content: Get to the point immediately. Make sure you answer all the questions or address all the issues raised. Keep responses short and provide links to further information. Don't answer more than was originally asked.

Scope: Be thorough. Go the extra mile to offer alternatives, options and resources. However, don't speculate about things you don't know or can't back up.

Attitude: Talk like a grownup talking to a grownup. Don’t be condescending or robotic. Be respectful. Be compassionate. Explain your reasoning or the basis for what you're saying. Take responsibility as appropriate—some complaints will have nothing to do with you.

No-Nos: Do not ask your technical experts to write. Check for spelling errors. Even a minor error makes you look unprofessional, careless and untrustworthy.

Here's the most important thing to remember: Be present. Focus on this person, this inquiry, this moment in time.

Think about how they will feel when they read your response. Imagine that you botch it and infuriate the recipient, escalating the problem. 

Or, the opposite—they are surprised and delighted by the personalized, professional, comprehensive answer they received from you. They appreciate of your humanity, your intelligence, and most of all your accountability.

Copyright 2016 by Dannielle Blumenthal. All opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily represent the views of her employer or any other organization or entity. 

Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D., is a federal communicator with 20 years' experience in the private sector, academia and government. Best known for her work on branding, Dr. Blumenthal now focuses on the discipline of management, particularly the intersections between identity, culture and communication. She has lectured at a variety of schools including The George Washington University and the University of Maryland University College. In her spare time she is an independent community activist, focused primarily on raising awareness about child sexual abuse and domestic violence. All opinions are her own.

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