I have always disliked “no comment” as an answer to a reporter’s question. I had it laid in my lap several times when I started out as a journalist and later watched as other PR executives and spokespeople thought they could dodge a pointed question with the slippery phrase. Maybe it was my curiosity, but “no comment” always raised more questions in my mind. It also looks awful in print.
I take pride that in more than 10 years of communications I have never provided a “no comment” response to a question. You may be thinking, “Good for you, but I get asked the tough questions and sometimes ‘no comment’ is the only possible answer.”
If that’s what you think I would ask you to be a little more creative in your question/answer process. I was lucky to have a mentor for a large part of my career when it came to working my way through this process. For more than five years I worked daily with a lawyer, doctor, and head of law enforcement…all of which were the same person. I would talk through possible questions before interviews and he would take me through his thought process that included providing answers without ever providing a “no comment.”
So how is it done? First you must remember to never accept the premise of a question. You must also always try to uncover the motivation behind why each question was posed. Beyond that, practice, practice, practice. Here are a few questions that reporters will ask and several answers that will help you avoid a “no comment”:
Q: “If your organization faced [insert hardship here] what would you do?”
Reporters are fond of asking “What if?” type questions when the real account of an event is less than gripping. This is perhaps one of the most common “tough” questions to answer.
A: “I do not respond to hypotheticals, however if you wish to discuss the actual event I am more than happy to do so.”
Q: “You spoke with [insert partner name here]. What are they doing?”
Following in the hypothetical line of questioning, reporters also like to ask you to spill the beans on partners and sponsors. This tactic is frequently used when your partner will not answer the same question or the reporter has yet to contact them and is looking for an easy two-for-one interview from you.
A: “You should really speak with [insert partner name here] directly if you want to know the answer to that question. Here is the contact information for their public relations person.”
Q: “Well how much does your CEO earn?”
The media is always interested in compensation, especially at a nonprofit. This is probably the easiest “tough” question to answer.
A: “That is public information. Please refer to the link on our web site to our 990 form.”
Follow up Q: “Why can’t you just tell me?”
A: “It sounds as if you have not reviewed the information. Rather than go back and forth, why not review the information and then I will answer all of your questions at once?”
These are just a few questions you may be asked that will tempt you to utter “no comment.” What other tough questions have you been asked? Send them in and I will send you the non-“no comment” answer.