‘No comment’ just gives reporters, critics a free run at hurting you


I’ve come across enough “no comment” decisions lately to make it worth revisiting this misunderstood decision.

In most crises, we suggest that no comment is not an option. The reason is simple: If a radio, TV or newspaper story about you is significant and one-sided enough so the reporter seeks your comment, you’d best give it. Because if you do not, you tell the reporter they’ve done their job in asking you, so it’s open season for your critics.

The easiest way to paint a bullseye on your back is to let a reporter do it unopposed.

Many clients will argue that a particular news organization is “out to get them” and there’s nothing they can do to fight people who control the media. That’s simply not true. If you don’t comment, you make it too easy for the media. You give them a free shot.

Unless you can say that a topic is in litigation or national security requires it and your lawyers said not to comment — which are slim and sometimes ineffective excuses at best — you should say something.

Even a bad comment is better than no comment. Why? Because “no comment” used to earn you a fair benefit of the doubt. Today it means, “I did it; guilty as charged.” You can argue that all you want, but “no comment” is perceived today as the tree you hide behind when the bullets fly at you.

On the other hand, commenting may not fully balance a full-on negative story about you or something you did, but it at least forces listeners and viewers and readers to consider your defense; it at least gives your supporters hope and demonstrates to them that you’re fighting back; you’re not going to let anyone call you an idiot to your face and take it lying down.

‘No comment’ is for wimps.

After spending 30 years as a journalist, I can tell you that every reporter who amasses evidence pointing to wrongdoing, stupidity or guilt worries big time about the call to the story subject. This is because it’s never pleasant to call someone and tell them they are about to be exposed in public with their pants figuratively at their knees and you’re the one who cut their belt.

Thus how do reporters feel when, 1. They can’t reach you and you don’t call back? Or, 2. You call back or leave a message and say you won’t comment? They feel relief. They don’t have to argue with you. They don’t have to consider the facts in your defense, some of which may be strong enough to counter the whole premise of their negative story. They are now free to say or allow your critics to asset pretty much anything they want.

The closest analogy is when a defense lawyer decides a client should plead guilty and the prosecutor heaves a sigh of relief because the case against the defendant was strong, but not flawless and the prosecutor didn’t want to see the defense fight back in front of a jury. No comment is handing a reporter a guilty verdict.

Is that a better position to be in than to say something in your own defense?

Let’s say you are a politician up for re-election and a news outlet does a story on how critics mock your achievements and leadership ability. No comment tells voters that you may think your critics are correct; it tells citizens you don’t care enough to defend yourself.

Would something like this not be better?

“I believe my record stands up extremely well against anyone who held this office over the last 25 years. I’ve cut taxes, balanced budgets, brought in new jobs and the crime rate is down since I took office. I was re-elected last time with 62 percent of the vote and I look forward to running again and continuing to serve the people.”

Or, same scenario with a little more snarkiness:

“Your whole supposition is flawed. I’ve been re-elected for multiple terms, so other than your self-appointed media ‘watchdog,’ whatever that is, I find the whole basis of your story biased and designed to create controversy and sell ads. My record speaks for itself. I see a growing community, satisfied constituents and I share their positive view of the future, something your organization is known for undervaluing.”

No comment is not an option.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at http://www.mower.com. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.

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About steveoncrisis

The content is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It comes from Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and as managing editor and editorial page editor at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower and Associates, one of the nation's largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agency with six offices in the Northeast and Southeast.
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