The Art of the Comment

This post first appeared in Medium’s The Publicity Machine collection.

Thanks to the internet, comments are frequently relegated to the most base portion of online participation. By providing space to the previously voiceless to air their opinions, many news articles are followed by pages of derogatory musings from hate mongers (asshats) or experts in presenting themselves as just that: experts. Unfortunately, this is not far from the same practice in public relations circles.

When I first joined the PR ranks some called commenting on the news “rapid response.” This was the practice of trying to take the first news cycle and somehow attaching your company or client to it. This is at worst a stretch and at best annoying to journalists who have enough sources.

There is an art to providing comments and it’s not by being late to the party. Instead it demands forethought and the ability to add to the conversation, not to make it your own but to further enlighten and engage your audience.

There are many ways to create a relevant comment but for the sake of space I am going to provide four methods that I found useful over the years. Hopefully they will help you as well.

The Request for Comment

If you’re doing your job well you’ll create inbound calls from the press. On occasion members of the media will ask you to explain your product so that they can place it within their story’s narrative. At other times they’ll want you to react to news from a competitor or trends taking place that relate to your company or organization. If you decide that it is in the best interest of your employer to comment you’ll have some legwork to do.

I was once contacted by a reporter from Forbes Small Business to comment on a new military vest for protecting and communicating with K9s on the battlefield. I was working for a leading animal welfare organization at the time and we had partnered with an NFL quarterback to provide bulletproof vests to Boston Police Department K9s in the past.

This was not an easy comment for several reasons, the greatest of which was that I knew nothing about this vest. First and foremost you should ask the reporter to describe the information they have so far and what they want to ask you. I find it is best to play somewhat ignorant so that they will ply you with details in an effort for a quick comment. Once you have this information you should go off and do your own research to verify this information. The key here is to never accept the premise of a question.

Depending on the deadline you can do this in anywhere from a few minutes to a few days. Either way you must be as thorough as possible. Then ensure that if you do provide comment that it ties back to your mission while moving the conversation forward. In the case of the Fortune reporter, I discussed why we protected BPD K9s (which was printed) and our views on not using them unnecessarily in dangerous situations (which was not printed).

The Partnership Comment

If you’re not in the story then you might want to insert yourself into the plot. Not long after the BP oil spill in the Gulf, volunteers had begun flocking south to help animals in danger. Remembering the shit storm of unwanted volunteers that mucked up the Hurricane Katrina animal rescue efforts I wanted to help ensure a smooth process for those wishing to help.

My first move was to call the office of Louisiana’s Lieutenant Governor. I was put in touch with Janet Pace, Executive Director for the Louisiana Serve Commission. This was in early June, well after the initial explosion. I was therefore understandably shocked to discover that I was the first representative from an animal welfare agency to contact the state’s center for volunteer efforts and ask, “How would you like me to help or should I stay out of your way.”

Pace was delighted to hear someone ask for her thoughts before taking action and we decided I would post updates on our website for Massachusetts to assist in her volunteer coordination. This led to several future inbound media calls on the spill as well as set the tone for our disaster response work with the media internationally for several years.

The Hot Potato Comment

As I alluded to earlier just because you are asked to comment does not mean that you should. Too many spokespeople think that if you do not provide comment that the inbound calls from journalists will dry up. This is completely false if you can provide value to the media when they come knocking.

If you know your industry then you know others who can comment. Why not pass a reporter their way once in awhile? This is a long game not a sprint so you should act accordingly. Being helpful creates return business and PR that is the ultimate goal.

In some cases, literally law enforcement cases, our policy was not to comment on ongoing or open investigations. That never stopped me from helping a reporter trying to write a complete article. In many of these instances I would simply provide the media with contacts at other investigating agencies, since we frequently partnered with local law enforcement departments that had looser policies when it came to providing comment.

The No Comment

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. In fact my wife, who also happens to be communications, is known among the media for a similar streak. You may be thinking, “Good for you both, but I get asked the tough questions and sometimes ‘no comment’ is the only possible answer.”

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?”

Whenever you’re asked to provide a comment see it as an opportunity to build your relationship with a member of the media. Review how you can add to the level of discourse rather than recycling your stale messaging. If you can swing that then you’ll be seen as a well-rounded source for future requests.

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