Asking stupid questions

At the PRIA’s Women in PR lunch last week one of the guests asked one of the guest speakers for any advice on what to do when you are the only woman in a meeting. The response: it gives you a chance to ask the stupid question.

Now the blog has always been a great advocate of the stupid question in the form of the question that no-one else wants to ask in case it makes them look stupid. These are normally the most important questions. For instance, it is the groupthink question to ask what everyone thinks of the Emperor’s clothes while it is the stupid question to ask why he’s not wearing any?

In many meetings there are a host of unquestioned assumptions put forward and lots of issues management problems which arise as a result. Many of these assumptions are the product of the participants world view. If they are all business boys their views on work life balance for women are probably vague at best. Company directors can normally be assumed never to ask exactly what the problems which might be caused by some intended regulation are before reflexively opposing them on the grounds of ‘unintended consequences’.

A good example of the Company Director approach is found in the latest Boardroom Report of the Australian Institute of Company Directors. The report contains an item on the proposed International Integrated Report Framework ( which a number of peak PR bodies around the world have helped develop. Basically the framework encourages new levels of transparency around issues and corporate activities which contribute to longer term value creation. In a world where increasing demand for transparency is accentuated by social media and online communications the IIRF is probably a good thing. Indeed, a recent report on a survey of 4500 PR people from around the world ( rated managing the speed and volume of information flow and the digital revolution as two of the top three issues facing the industry (the third was crisis preparedness). But the AICD’s almost reflexive response was along the lines of ‘it might be a good thing but….it raises new questions about liability.’ This is a more subtle version of the unintended consequences ploy – just particularise it enough to refer to directors’ liabilities. Liabilities, of course, are by definition always too onerous and likely to inhibit the entrepreneurial spirit which has helped Australian companies achieve world’s best practice in areas such as paying failing CEOs heaps of money. The stupid question in this case would be: “I don’t understand exactly how the liabilities will increase and what the consequences are: can you explain them to me?”

Back at the Women in PR lunch the question was whether the stupid answer response was actually a good answer to the original question about being the only woman in the room? A woman at the table where the blog was sitting  asked that very question and wanted to know whether other speakers thought it was an appropriate answer or not. While seeing the value of the so-called stupid question the blog couldn’t help thinking that the woman at the table had a strong point. Is it tactically or strategically the right thing to ask a ‘stupid question’ when you are the only person of a particular gender in a meeting? Is it likely to provoke a stupid answer, scoffing or provoke deeper reflection on the issue at hand? Does it depend on whether it’s your first time with the group, the second or in an ongoing role? Is the answer even a bit offensive?

One thing is certain, however, asking the stupid questions (like why isn’t the Emperor wearing any clothes?) isn’t always the best way to achieve popularity in the C-suite. Good PR people, of course, should be aspiring for respect not popularity but the woman at the table had an excellent point – you need to earn it through some serious strategic and tactical work. And anyway, as the blog suggested to the woman after she sat back down, asking really stupid questions is surely a man’s role.

Note: the blog is grateful to Tony Jaques’ Issues Outcome blog for drawing its attention to the issues of concern to PR people report. See: