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The phrase “no comment” came into popular use after the usually eloquent Winston Churchill uttered those words to a reporter’s question about his visit to Hitler’s bunker in 1946.
While the phrase has retained the same literal definition, it has taken on a connotation that suggests deception, duplicity or disregard. So what do you do when faced with your most dreaded media questions? This is where a little practice and media training can save the day. There are several go-to statements and helpful tips that will allow you to avoid “no comment,” while also avoiding making things worse.
Based on our own experiences and the input of many colleagues, here are six tips:
1. Share WHY you can’t answer a specific question. For example: “That information hasn’t been verified yet, so I can’t provide an answer right now. But what I can tell you is …” and then deliver a key message or planned statement. This allows you to provide information without divulging anything that is off limits. Other valid reasons why you may not be able to share information with media:
• The matter is in litigation;
• There are financial / securities regulations involved;
• There are client / employee / patient confidentially or privacy concerns;
• Competitive reasons; or
• Next of kin or employees have not been notified yet.
2. Offer to arrange an interview at a later time. If you don’t want to speak to anyone off the cuff, suggest arranging an interview. You can simply say: “I’d be happy to discuss this further if you call my office to set up an interview;” or “I don’t have answers to all of your questions right now, but let’s schedule a time to sit down and talk.”
3. Suggest other alternatives. In addition to offering a later date, you could also respond by saying: “I don’t have all the information in front of me right now. However, if you send me a list of your questions, I can make sure they’re answered for you.” Exchange contact information to underscore the offer.
4. Take control back. If you’re asked a question that you want to avoid completely, there are ways to deflect and get back to your key messaging. For example: “That’s a good question. I’m glad you asked because it gives me the opportunity to explain what we’re actually doing…” or, “We don’t have any news on that yet, but let me point out that…”
5. Think of it as relationship building. During a bad news scenario, the last person you might want to encounter is a journalist. But even if they seem out to get you, think of the exchange as a way to lay a solid foundation for future positive coverage. A terse comment doesn’t exactly help your relationship with the media. The crisis will pass and when it’s over, you’ll want to have strengthened your media ties, not harmed them.
6. When the going gets tough, leave the bridge behind. In some circumstances, a journalist might resort to argumentative tactics to try and get you to respond. In these extreme cases, the best thing to do, according to media trainer Eric Berg, is to use the answer-stop method and avoid any bridge statements. Berg says, “by simply answering the question in the fewest number of words, even if it’s to say, ‘that’s not correct,’ you cannot be accused of not answering the question.”
*Bonus tip: Have spokespeople rehearse several different ways to deliver key messages. You don’t want to sound too rehearsed and you need to have some flexibility based on what questions you’re being asked. Know the messages inside and out, and from all angles.
Beyond these tips, practice makes perfect. If you’re interested in media training for your company executives, contact us!