Media Relations 101: Don’t Comment with “No Comment”

Creates perception of guilt…

If you’re a spokesperson, don’t say this: no comment.

Uttering the term “no comment” to a reporter is the journalism equivalent of pleading the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination.

The phrase is pitiful for PR and a misstep in media relations. It conveys the wrong perception with journalists and the public alike. It’s also a journalism code for lack of transparency.

That’s because “no comment” implies guilt and wrongdoing, whether true or false. PR pros and savvy communicators know that “no comment” creates a bad perception in the media — and perception is often equated with reality for news consumers.

“No comment” is the last thing any journalist wants to hear, especially from a corporate spokesperson. Don’t say it!

Ironically, while repeated use of the term “no comment” may feel like a security blanket to you, it has the opposite effect on reporters. The term can cause journalists to consider you a toothless mouthpiece.

Here’s a small sampling of what others have said about it:

“It seems obvious after the fact, but ‘no comment’ is, in and of itself, a comment.” — SpinSucks.com
“Those two words are deadly because they imply you have something to hide. There are other ways to convey the same message.” — Risk Management magazine
“Offering no comment allows the press to fill in the blanks, diverts the focus of publicity, and sacrifices an opportunity to communicate…” — Wikipedia

In fact, “no comment” is anathema to transparency with the media. However, as noted in my article on transparency below:

  • “Even though transparency is tantamount to successful media relations, there are always narrow exceptions to the rule.”
  • “These instances are usually based on legal prohibitions in divulging certain information to the press. Here’s an example…”

Other Options

Rather than stating “no comment” in response to questions from journalists, other creative language can and should be used, whether verbally or on social media. The following are just a few examples of what to say instead:

1) “We can’t rule anything in or out at this time.”

2) “We are prohibited by law from confirming or denying that information” (if applicable).

3) “We are assessing [studying/evaluating/investigating] the situation [issue/policy/ruling] and will have a complete response once all the facts are known.”

4) “Instead of commenting on that right now, let me point out…”

5) “It’s premature to comment at this time because...”

6) “That’s an interesting question, but what you should really be asking is…”

7) “Let’s look at this issue from a broader perspective…”

8) “There is an equally important concern…”

9) “Let’s not forget the underlying problem…”

10) “That point may have some validity, but hear me out…”

My Take

Answering a question from journalists with “no comment” is disingenuous at best and foolhardy at worst. Some communicators may know the answer to a given question but have received instructions from the boss or C-suite to hush up.

Just look at White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders as an example of how to lose credibility with the media and public, per her daily press briefings.

Just because a spokesperson might be unaware of the answer to a question does not mean there isn’t a legitimate and accurate response besides “no comment.”

If you’re unable to comment — even “on background” without name attribution — it raises further questions about whether you’ve been cut out of the loop internally. If so, your credibility as a spokesperson can be irrevocably damaged, not to mention that of your organization and its brand.

In essence, the term “no comment” is not an appropriate response to questions from journalists. It will have detrimental consequences for you and your organization. If you can’t comment to the media, then at least try to explain why — per some of the examples above.

Anyone care to comment on that?

DBG

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: I’m a strategic communications consultant, ghostwriter and former federal government spokesman based in the Washington, DC-area. A native New Yorker, I worked as a journalist prior to my career of public service. You can also find me on Twitter and LinkedIn.

NOTE: All views and opinions are those of the author only and not official statements or endorsements of any public sector employer, private sector employer, organization or political entity.