The no ‘no comment’ rule

At Obsidian, one way that we really bring value to clients is through crisis management. In a time of crisis – large or small, internal or external – we work with the client to determine what should be said to key stakeholders (including media), how it should be said, who should say it, when it should be said, in what medium should it be said…you get the idea.

One common instinct that we see with many new clients is the impulse to respond to a tricky question with, “no comment.” If this is something you can envision yourself saying to a reporter asking about a crisis, you must fight the urge to duck and run because that’s exactly what a “no comment” response is: the verbal equivalent of running and hiding under a rock, hoping your bad situation will just go away on its own. Wouldn’t it be great if it were that easy? Trust me, it’s not.

There are many words that you would probably want your target audience to associate with your organization: strong, innovative, trustworthy, responsive, caring and so on. But when you say “no comment,” here are some words that come to a reader’s mind: Evasive. Secretive. Shady. It makes the reader wonder what you are hiding and why.

Certainly, there are circumstances during which you are legally very limited in what you can say, such as lawsuits or ongoing investigations. The trick is to always be prepared to say SOMETHING, even if you can’t address the actual item the reporter has asked about. Here’s our philosophy: There is ALWAYS something good to say. To give you a better idea, take a look at these two sample exchanges between a CEO and a reporter.

Reporter: “Can you tell me where you stand with your employee who was arrested for fraud?”

CEO: “No comment.”

Reporter: “Can you tell me where you stand with your employee who was arrested
for fraud?”
CEO: “I’m sure you understand that I’m not able to speak on the details of an ongoing investigation, but what I can tell you is that we are evaluating our procedures and tightening our controls to prevent anything like this in the future. Our customers, employees and shareholders are extremely important to us, and it is our No. 1 goal to protect their investment of money and time.”

When you compare the two, you see that the second CEO values and respects his customers, employees and shareholders enough to at least give some response, even if he can’t go into specifics. The “no comment” CEO, without realizing it, has just devalued those extremely important stakeholders, has probably frustrated the reporter, and has made it look like he has something to hide.

At Obsidian, a big part of what we do is arranging media opportunities for clients, but just as important is making sure the client representative is equipped and prepared to speak to media. This means going over potential questions, discussing good ways to answer and offering advice for avoiding common pitfalls, one of which is definitely the “no comment” instinct. It’s important to be prepared for an interview, whether it’s for a positive, neutral or potentially negative story. Good preparation might just turn a would-be negative story into a neutral or even positive one. But saying “no comment” never will.