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How to Avoid Saying “No Comment”

When a reporter calls seeking comment on a story you cannot entertain, you may be inclined to respond with “no comment,” but is that the best approach? How can you avoid making a comment without looking like you’ve got something to hide?

If you won’t answer their questions, journalists immediately think there’s something suspicious going on. It’s unavoidable. But that shouldn’t be the basis for deciding whether to give comments on a difficult topic. While it’s always better to find a way to respond to a journalist, it’s not always possible. When talking to a reporter is not an option, here’s what you can do:

  • Consider a non-statement statement. Rather than responding with “no comment,” try saying “We are weighing our options and will withhold comment until we have a better sense of our response.” Or “We would like to respond, but given the circumstances, it would be premature to outline our position. We will comment at the appropriate time.”
  • Whatever your statement, give it in writing, via email, to eliminate confusion over what you said, and to avoid being drawn into a conversation that will make things worse.
  • Don’t answer the phone. It sounds silly, but not as silly as saying “no comment.” When you don’t answer the phone, the journalist will write “calls were not returned,” or you “could not be reached for comment.” You didn’t choose not to comment. You just didn’t answer your phone.
  • Allow a third-party to respond on your behalf. If you have a knowledgeable supporter willing to handle the response, discuss over the phone (never in writing) how they might do this, and let them manage the task for you. Be clear on the boundaries for a response, and make sure they tell every journalist contacted that they are not speaking for you. This approach requires careful coordination and a skilled and loyal messenger. But cable television is full of surrogates commenting on issues around the clock. This tactic is common because it works.
  • Negotiate a timeframe for a response. If you’re certain you’ll be able to respond in a few days, consider how to give that information to the journalist. Your surrogate might be the best option. Or you may elect to provide the comment on or off the record to manage your role in the story. The reporter may be willing to hold the piece, or at least temper what’s written about you, until you’re in a better position to address the issues. It is possible to negotiate a story, but you should do so only when you intend to keep your end of the bargain.

Riester Public Affairs is a woman-owned small business public relations agency located in the Washington, D.C. area, providing expert traditional media relations support and cutting-edge digital journalism content to clients, including the ability to create podcasts, video podcasts, and story animations. The company recently expanded its studio offerings to include the ability to record video interviews in-house. Riester Public Affairs also owns and operates two podcast studios.