I frequently have participants in our Media Interview Skills Training sessions challenge me on my insistence that "no comment," is never an acceptable response to a question from a journalist.
As a former journalist and an avid news junkie, I can tell you that "no comment" is the audio equivalent of blood in the water for sharks. Get ready for a feeding frenzy.
Saying "no comment," sends a bunch of messages that the interviewee probably doesn''t intend.
Question: "What did the President know and when did he know it?"
Answer: "No comment."
Audience hears: "He knew much more/less than we would ever admit and much sooner/later than we want anyone to know."
In other words, the audience will always assume the worst when the interviewee refuses to comment. That goes for journalists, too. Instead of closing a door to further inquisition, it paints the door bright red and sticks a sign on it that reads, "Wouldn''t you love to know what''s in here?"
To get to the root of why a non-response of "no comment" is a major interview don''t, you need to examine the rationale for interacting with the media in the first place. To put it simply, the media can be a conduit through which an organization can deliver its message. Every question -- even the ones that you would rather not have to address -- presents an opportunity to get your message out there.
And there''s no better time to be communicating your message than when you are fielding questions that you''d rather not have to deal with. In fact, any time your gut tells you to say, "no comment," your brain needs to be shouting, "Hey, let''s take full advantage of this opportunity. I''ve got something to say!"
That''s where planning and preparation come in. Hopefully, your organization has helped by defining key messages and you''ve familiarized yourself with the concepts that drive these messages. What do your publics -- the people whose attitudes and opinions about your organization are important for your success -- need to know about you? If your public relations staff has not provided you with those messages, ask for them.
Then it becomes a simple case of bridging from the question you don''t want to answer to the company''s messages that you know need to be communicated. With this mindset, there''s never any reason to resort to "no comment."
Question: "What can you tell us about the CEO''s arrest today?"
Answer: "The investigation into the exact circumstances is ongoing, but what I can tell you is that our board is absolutely committed to acting in the best interests of the shareholders."
Question: "So are you confirming that the CEO was indeed arrested?"
Answer: "I suspect that the best source for that information is law enforcement, but what I can confirm is that the operations of this company have not been and will not be disrupted in any way."
Using this method capitalizes on every opportunity to communicate your message, even when faced with terrible questions. Even when faced with questions about litigation that your legal counsel would prefer you did not address, you can respond by saying, "Unfortunately, matters that are the subject of ongoing litigation are off-limits, but here''s what I can tell you...."
This doesn''t always come naturally and often takes a little practice, which is one of the values of Media Interview Skills Training. Through practice and repetition, the training can build the confidence of the spokesperson and show how easy it can be to weave key messages into responses without seeming evasive.