We’ve all been taught to avoid saying “no comment” in media situations – as it’s like waving a red flag in front of a bull.
So what’s a company spokesperson to do in a situation where he or she would rather not comment, is unsure of exactly what to say or, worse yet, is unable to answer a question?
No matter how tempting using the phrase “no comment” might be, to the media “no comment” can be considered an admission of guilt, dishonesty and lack of regard for the news they are trying to cover.
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.
A key point to remember is that if you’re tempted to say “no comment” because you can’t answer the reporter’s question, you can almost always say something, which in most cases is better than saying nothing at all.
We posed this question to our PR colleagues across the country: “What are the best substitutes for ‘no comment’ that you’ve heard or used?” And the response was overwhelming … and out of hundreds of responses, all but one recommended saying something other than “no comment.”
As media trainer Eric Bergman (http://www.presentwithease.com) says, there are three possible situations relating to every reporter’s question, each with an acceptable answer:
1) You know the answer to the question and can share it – I have the answer and here it is.
2) You don’t know the answer – I don’t have the answer but I’ll get it for you.
3) You know the answer, but are not able to share it for one of several reasons (confidentiality, prematurity, privacy, litigation concerns, disclosure regulations, policy, etc.) – I know the answer but I cannot discuss it, and here’s why.
Note that the answers are based on honesty, not on subterfuge.
After gathering and distilling our colleagues’ responses – and tapping into our own experiences in this area – here is what we see as the five best approaches for avoiding “no comment”:
- Share what you know as fact – “I cannot speculate, but here is what I know and am able to share with you at this time …”
- Admit that you do not know – “I don’t have that information…” (or “That’s a good question. I wish I knew the answer.”) “Let me look into it and get back to you …” (And, by all means, make sure you do.)
- Explain why you are unable to comment – “We cannot share the details on that as it’s proprietary information (or premature … or against our policy to comment on ongoing litigation, etc.)”
- Bridge to what you can share – “We are still investigating that, so I don’t have complete information at this time, but what I can tell you is …”
- Provide a written media statement or hold a press briefing – “I’m unable to answer your questions at this time, however I will be sharing a media statement (or holding a press briefing today at 3 p.m.) regarding this issue …”
Another colleague, Patrick Gibbons, a PR executive with a leading non-profit R&D organization, suggests remembering the acronym ACC to make the best of a “no comment” situation:
A – Awareness – Express your awareness of the issue or lack thereof.
C – Concern – Express your concern about the issue and/or the people/organizations involved.
C – Commitment – Express your organization’s commitment to do the right thing when the facts of the issue are better understood.
The beauty of this approach, Patrick says, is in the flexibility it provides a spokesperson in the face of uncertainty.
In today’s fast-paced social media environment, sooner or later your organization will have to deal with the issue at hand and the resulting publicity that will follow.
In the long run, wouldn’t it be better to handle it honestly, directly and on your own terms rather than on someone else’s?