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Why you should never lie in media interviews

By Pete Walter | Posted: November 25, 2014
Abraham Lincoln once pointed out, “no man has a good enough memory to make a successful liar.”Lincoln knew plenty of successful people that also assumed success extended into being a good liar. A lawyer and interrogator before he became president, Lincoln also knew they were wrong.

When trouble knocks on the door of the powerful or successful, the media won’t be far behind asking tricky questions. In these circumstances, there is a huge temptation to lie in order to make the questions go away.

But we only have to look at what was perhaps the biggest scandal in sports history to see that media stories don’t get written simply about bad things, they get written when people lie about bad things.

Lance Armstrong, seven-times Tour de France champion and the most successful cyclist in history, was stripped of his titles and banned from competing when it he was found to be in the centre of a doping ring that fuelled the U.S. Postal cycling team in victory after victory.

For years, journalists suspected Armstrong was cheating, and he often went on the record to vehemently protest his innocence. The cyclist repeatedly stated that not only had he never cheated in the Tour de France, but he’d also never taken performance-enhancing drugs in his entire life.

Armstrong’s tactic of making strong statements to bluff his way out of trouble was a bad idea. Over-the-top statements are red flags to journalists that interviewees aren’t telling the truth.

A recent Stanford University paper revealed top CEOs used far more positive language than usual when lying. Instead of saying their company’s results were “solid” and “respectable,” they used over-the-top words like “fantastic” and “spectacular.”

Lance Armstrong knew how much he owed the media for building up his image as an all-American hero. In a montage of some of his interviews, Armstrong ends with this highly ironic statement: “It’s a question of credibility.”

He was right about that. In the digital age, credibility and reputation has never been more important. A proven lie has the potential to get you in a lot of trouble. A proven lie that has been captured on camera has the potential to wreck your career, and in extreme cases, get you on the wrong side of the law.

Ex-member of parliament Jim Devine decided to face the media when the story of his alleged involvement in the U.K. parliamentary expenses scandal broke, accepting a live interview.

A well prepared interview in which Devine showed remorse for his actions and offered to do everything in his power to get to the bottom of the situation could have gone a long way to saving his reputation. Instead, Devine refused to admit any wrongdoing and lied his way through eight minutes of awkward television.

The interview was later played in court as evidence against him, leading to his conviction, career loss, and subsequent jail term.

Of course, not lying doesn’t mean you have to be totally transparent at all times. A good journalist will never let a good story go, but don’t offer far more information than you need to. Telling a portion of the truth is fine if it satisfies the journalist’s question.

David Walsh, chief sports writer for the Sunday Times, persisted with Armstrong inquiries for years, even through pressure and intimidation from Armstrong and his cronies. He knew the bigger the lie, the bigger the story it would be when the lie was finally exposed.

Since the truth about Armstrong came to light, Walsh’s “Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong” won William Hill’s Sports Book of the Year and will be adapted into a Hollywood film. Meanwhile, Lance Armstrong lost an estimated $150 million and faces being forever remembered as the biggest liar in sports history.

If you’re ever facing a tricky media interview and the journalist is pressing you on something you don’t want to reveal, remember: the truth may hurt you, but it’ll hurt you a lot less than an exposed lie.

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Pete Walter is the producer of Deal with the Media with Sir Trevor McDonald, an online media training service for small businesses and entrepreneurs, and the director of media training firm First Take.

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