No Comment: Two Words to Avoid in Communications
November 29, 2022
Picture this scene: Our protagonist (i.e., city official, business executive, coach, etc.) is facing a throng of noisy reporters, all of whom are shouting out questions. Cameras are rolling and pictures are being taken and there is a tense energy in the air. News is happening!
One aggressive reporter positions herself firmly in front of our protagonist, effectively blocking his path and thrusts a microphone in his face. “What do you have to say about the accusations made against you? Are they true?”
Our protagonist stops, the look on his face and sweat on his brow befitting of someone under an immense amount of stress. With all eyes upon them, he looks at the reporter and says, “No comment.”
You have undoubtedly watched this countless times on TV shows or in the movies. Though entirely possible in real life, you could argue it is also an amped-up point of conflict concocted by script writers for dramatic effect. Yes, there are many tough (and legitimate) questions being asked in real life, but in today’s environment they are just as likely to come from an email inquiry or a phone call – not a crazy throng of reporters jostling for a “sound bite of the century.”
At the heart of this scenario is our protagonist’s use of “No comment.” Should it be used? Why or why not? Here are a few things to consider:
Why It Should NOT Be Used
When dealing with questions in a crisis or stressful situation, less is usually more. People commonly overshare information in these types of circumstances, and that is not always helpful to their cause. However, saying “No comment” does not provide enough information. In fact, answering this way can leave things open to interpretation and, in turn, lead to misunderstanding by others.
For example, “Mr. Smith, did you steal money from your employer?” Mr. Smith replies, “No comment.” While this short answer may please his lawyers and keep him from engaging with the media, it does nothing to help Mr. Smith in the court of public opinion. In fact, by not answering the question or even defending himself, he has likely convinced a number of people he is guilty – so, his “non-answer” has communicated a message anyway.
“No comment” is rarely, if ever, a good response. You come across as dodgy, non-transparent and lacking conviction. If you cannot stand up for yourself, or your organization, why should others? And, as one of my colleagues points out, it becomes a math problem. Your short, non-answer means the TV reporter has to fill more air-time, or the print reporter has to fill more column inches because you provided nothing of substance. Do you want them to fill that time/space with whatever they want, or would you rather have them use something – anything – that accurately communicates your position?
A Better Way To Answer
If “No comment” is not an option, what can you say without painting yourself into a proverbial corner from a PR or legal standpoint? Here are a few options based on the earlier scenario:
Question: “What do you have to say about the accusations made against you? Are they true?”
Option #1: “This is currently a legal matter and I want to respect the process, so I am unable to say anything at this time. However, I look forward to eventually sharing my side of the story when the time is right.”
Option #2: “I understand the seriousness of this matter and am deeply troubled and saddened by the things being said, so I look forward to eventually sharing my side of story.”
Option #3: “This is a sensitive and serious matter that is getting my full attention. Now is not the time or place to discuss any of this, but I plan to defend myself against these accusations.”
Three different alternatives to a “No comment” response; and there are many other options, no matter the scenario, if you take time to think it through. All of them tell the questioner that you hear what they are asking and acknowledge the situation, but you are choosing – for whatever reason – not to engage in a back-and-forth right now. Simply put, you have provided a thoughtful, short, intelligent answer without really saying anything; and, better yet, you have given them something they can use.
If you think “No comment” is going to get you off-the-hook and divert attention elsewhere, you are following a flawed strategy. Instead of being short and sounding brusque, offer thoughtful, articulate responses to the media’s questions, even if you are not saying anything. And these responses can be offered orally or in writing – the approach and goal is the same either way.
Blog by Mark Yontz