Group Gordon’s Zigis Switzer blogs about the good, the bad, and the ugly of responding with “no comment.” 5.5.15
In public relations, interviews with the press are high stakes at high noon. Every bit of media training, talking point preparation, and story pitching comes down to the moment between a client and a reporter. These can be exciting, daunting, or unsure moments – but during any interview clients may face questions that they don’t have an answer to, don’t want to answer, or just don’t know how to answer. In these moments, “no comment” is NOT the answer.
According to William Safire in The New York Times, the popularity of “no comment” can be traced back to Winston Churchill. The British Bulldog made the deflective remark after a White House meeting with President Truman in 1946, responding to reporter inquiries with, “I think ‘no comment’ is a splendid expression.” Even the CIA invented its own version – the Glomar response – to pushback against Freedom of Information Act requests, which, of course, only spurred further investigation.
Just do a quick Google News search for “no comment”. Without fail, just about every search result is a presumption of something nefarious or scandalous.
The reason? By offering, “no comment” the person being interviewed has effectively ceded control of the interview and given speculative value to their unanswered question. It encourages the press to pursue an answer by other means, can divert the desired focus of the interview or make the interviewee seem defensive, and it is a lost opportunity to stay on message.
Let’s take a moment to really think about what “no comment” means. The phrase generates two discernable – and diametrically opposed – interpretations depending on whether a person is the giver or receiver of the phrase.
Keep in mind – the person in the interview hot seat has no control over the questions a reporter will ask. But their answers can influence the direction future questions take. An interview is an exchange of information. With every question, the interviewer asks, the interviewee learns a little more about what the reporter is interested in writing about. And every answer can influence the reporter’s line of questioning. The use of, “no comment” is the equivalent of granting a free move.
Whether a person is being interviewed to talk about the launch of their new startup or responding to a crisis situation developing at their restaurant, there is one very basic tactic they should use to respond to those difficult questions that they don’t really want to answer, don’t know the answer, or are unsure of their answer: offer to get back to the reporter as soon as possible.
Then, when appropriate, redirect the conversation to a key message using a bridge:
“But perhaps an equally important issue here is….”
“It’s too soon to tell, but what we do know is….”
“It’s important to remember….”
“Actually, in my experience….”
This will give the interviewee time to think about what they want to say, ensure they are providing the right factual information, and bring the conversation back on track.