No Comment? Never.

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.

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6 thoughts on “No Comment? Never.

  1. I’ve had a reporter take my response as ‘would not comment’. This is accurate to a degree but what I said was ‘we are not able to discuss our client’s activity.’ To me, ‘would not comment’ still sounds like ‘no comment’ and the rest of the story seemed to position my firm as uncooperative, though I was amicable and accommodating. I’m reluctant to speak with this reporter again. What is your advice on handling reporters (or editors) dead set on positioning you or your firm as the villian?

    • Thank you for your question Lauren! This is a common occurrence and has happened to me many times. As an example, I could never discuss the details of an ongoing animal cruelty investigation as a matter of policy. While I told reporters our policy I also put myself in their shoes and knew that they needed to make their report as detailed as possible. In these cases I would provide information to help them frame their story. I would discuss the number of investigations we handled each year, how many officers we had across the state, the most common acts of cruelty, conviction rates, and so forth. Some reporters would be grateful and others still only wanted the immediate details. For the toughest reporters I would tell them that I could not discuss the details however they may want to try another law enforcement agency who may not have the same policy. I would provide them with the contact information for the local police and they may get some facts from them.

      In your case, you are ahead of the game by identifying reporters who might be prone to shaping news to fit their narratives. When this happens, be open with the reporter about your disappointment with their reporting since you did provide a comment, just not what they wanted. If this escalates it may be worth speaking with their editor and asking for a correction if it is warranted. You also should have some supporting facts to provide them with in interviews so that they may include that information instead of a “would not comment.”

    • Saying “No comment” to a reporter is giving them a licence to say/print whatever they like. “When asked if their CEO has been passing on defence secrets to their Chinese subcontractor, the company said “no comment”.

      How do you think this looks to the public? How do you think this looks when the CEO (who may have said “no comment”, as opposed to their corporate media head saying it) sees it in print? Usually, they regret it. NEVER say “no comment” – you are just opening the floodgates of negativity.

      When you get a question you don’t want to answer, say why you can’t answer it, if possible. Be up front: “there is an on-going investigation and it would be premature to talk about that right now.” You notice I am clearly avoiding the word “comment” even in an innocuous answer like that. If you just don’t want comment on a question right now because it treads on private corporate ground, treat that as an opportunity to get in a positive response. “Thanks for the question. We’re reviewing a number of things right now. At the moment, what we can say is….”

      If you notice, I am using very positive notes here – “Thanks for…” “We’re reviewing…” “…what we can say…” These are all high notes, they take the sting out of a non-answer, provide a platform to deliver one of your key messages (you have those, right?), provide the appropriate sound bite, and give away nothing. They don’t provide the reporter with an opportunity to really inject negativity unless that is the whole point of what they’re on about, in which case, you have at least avoided giving them more ammunition.

      Cheers,
      Tim Fletcher

  2. As communications professionals, we have a responsibility to encourage our executives to manage the message on behalf of the organisations that employ us. Saying ‘no comment’ abdicates that responsibility, and is essentially an opportunity lost. It is a strategic mistake to believe that saying ‘no comment’ or declining to return media phone calls will ensure any story does not get written. It will be written anyway, and all those actions do is ensure your message goes unheard, opening the door for your commercial rivals to dominate the conversation.

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