Most all media relations veterans recommend that spokespersons avoid saying “no comment” to the media in most all situations.
Just say “no” to no comment, PR experts urge.
Seasoned PR executive compare uttering those words to admitting guilt or to waving a red flag in front of a bull. Rather than ending the line of inquiry, “no comment” typically prompts more questions and speculation. Journalists invariably write the story anyway with someone else’s potentially damaging comments.
“If you’re considering using ‘no comment’ as a way to avoid dealing with an issue, forget it. You’re better off to deal with it … and the sooner, the better,” states Jessica Killenberg Muzik, vice president, account services, at Bianchi Public Relations.
In rare instances, a no comment can produce gains, at least in the short term. Asked if Twitter can continue independently, a Twitter board member answered “no comment.” That prompted an explosion of speculation on social media about merger and acquisition possibilities, notes Courtney Allen, account director at March Communications. Twitter’s share price spiked.
Usually, however, no comment only prompts negative reactions from both the public and media. Strive to eliminate the words from your vocabulary – and your spokespersons’ vocabulary, Allen urges.
When Spokespeople Cannot Reveal Information
Sometimes spokespeople cannot answer a reporter’s question even if they know the answer due to legal, regulatory or privacy issues. For those situations, learn to say “no comment” without actually saying “no comment.” Here’s how.
Deflect the question through bridging. The key to bridging is saying a phrase or sentence that transfers the question to your key message. “That’s an excellent question” is a common but perhaps overused bridging phrase. It gives the impression the interviewee is seriously considering the question and compliments the interviewer. Or perhaps say: “I’m not in a position to talk about this specific instance…” then go on to relay your organization’s general policies, goals and commitment to resolve the issue at hand. The reporter may forget the question, especially if a spokesperson provides an interesting quote. To respond to aggressive questions, try something like: “I wouldn’t use those words. If you are asking whether (rephrase the question), I can tell you that …”
Say why you can’t answer. Explain why you cannot answer the question when you know the answer. Reasons could be due to confidentiality, prematurity, privacy, litigation concerns or disclosure regulations. Say you cannot answer the question now but will respond in the near future. Say you are not the appropriate person to answer the question but will seek the right spokesperson, suggests communications training expert Adam Fisher. Or admit you don’t know. Any response is better than no comment.
Express a desire to cooperate. Say something like: “I wish I could comment on that (or “help you,” or “share that information with you,” suggests Stephen Rafe in his book on news media interviewing. Use the reporter’s name. If possible, say when you can provide the information.
Prepare responses. Prepare responses to all possible contingencies, such as breaking industry news, company growth or loss, and supply chain issues. Have corporate leaders approve the stock answers.
Train your people. Educate spokespersons including C-level executives about media interactions. Consider conducting mock-interviews with different journalist personas. Without formal media training, approved responses might be for naught.
Bonus tip: Suggest another resource. Say why you cannot answer the question and then give the reporter the name of someone who might provide useful information. Industry associations, researchers and others can provide at least background information on the story. The response will both deflect the question and help build a relationship with the reporter.
It’s essential to employ a media monitoring and measurement service to gauge the effectiveness of your company’s responses, especially during and after a PR crisis. Social media analytics can grade how sentiment toward your brand changes over time through sentiment analysis, whether manual, automated or combination.
When reviewing media monitoring vendors, seek a service that sends timely automated alerts, integrates news media and social media mentions into a single dashboard, and can incorporate customized metrics into its clients’ dashboards. Avoid vendors that require long-term contracts and take advantage of free trials.
Bottom Line: PR pros almost universally view the phrase “no comment” as a media relations disaster. In instances where a spokesperson cannot release information to the media for valid reasons, there are a number of effective ways to avoid saying “no comment” and at the same time satisfy the needs of the press. It’s worthwhile to practice the techniques and rehearse the comments for potential encounters with the press.
This article was first published on Sept. 9, 2016, and updated on Sept. 5, 2018.
William J. Comcowich founded and served as CEO of CyberAlert LLC, the predecessor of Glean.info. He is currently serving as Interim CEO and member of the Board of Directors. Glean.info provides customized media monitoring, media measurement and analytics solutions across all types of traditional and social media.