“No comment.” This is the answer most likely to be proffered by attorneys when asked by reporters to answer questions about litigation, hostile or controversial topics, an undesirable hypothetical situation or choice, or a request for information that cannot be disclosed.
Another tactic is to avoid the inquiring reporters altogether. But freezing out a reporter or news outlet to an interview is a dramatic step, and one that can backfire. After all, wouldn’t you believe a person or company is guilty when a newscaster says, “We tried to contact a representative from Corporation X multiple times, and they didn’t return our calls?”
Despite “no comment” likely being the correct response — certainly, for example, to protect client confidentiality, adhere to HIPAA or follow a code of judicial conduct — it is one that realistically conjures up perceptions of guilt or of covering up negative news.
This is clearly not the perception you want to leave with readers and viewers, especially when your lack of response or cooperation can contribute to the set of factors leading to real losses (e.g., reduced market share, lower stock price, employee defections).
For example, let’s look at the current scandal involving Barclays and the manipulation of global interest rates. According to The New York Times, on July 9, Paul Tucker, a deputy governor at the Bank of England, was scheduled to give testimony to a committee in Parliament on whether senior government officials put pressure on Barclays to lower its submissions to the London interbank offered rate, or Libor. The testimony could put him at loggerheads with Robert Diamond Jr., the former chief executive of Barclays, who told the same committee recently that the Bank of England, as well as others, had repeatedly been informed about the issue, but had not moved to stop it. How Tucker responds promises to be a critical moment. Through a spokeswoman, however, Tucker declined to comment for the story.
A smart move or a missed opportunity? Rather than avoiding an unwelcome question, Tucker could have relayed a key message without divulging any specific testimony. Assuming for the purpose of this example that Tucker is going to provide a sharp retort to Diamond’s story, a strategically productive response from the spokeswoman might have been something such as: “Mr. Tucker looks forward to correcting the record and sharing his testimony with Parliament.” This simple response doesn’t give any privileged or strategic information away, but certainly would be perceived as a much more positive answer to the reporter’s request for comment.
So what can you say so that you or your client survives the interview intact? Or, better yet, what can you say that will actually put you in a better position than beforehand?
Most importantly, you don’t have to feel obliged to answer every question specifically. The most effective interview subjects listen and look to the bigger issue behind each question and address that issue with control as they choose.
Often, you can acknowledge and address a reporter’s question briefly and then smoothly bridge to what you want to talk about. If you cannot answer a specific question, though, don’t simply say “no comment” or “I can’t answer that.”
Instead, explain why you can’t answer it and segue to a related message that is important to you.
Deftly avoiding an unwelcome or unproductive question need not cause heart palpitations. There are strategies that help take the discussion from unfriendly to friendly territory and make a smooth transition from an undesirable question or topic to an area that fits your agenda.
First, by using smooth connecting phrases such as, “It’s not our policy to discuss [X] specifically, but I can tell you…” or, “That speaks to a bigger point…” you have already begun bridging to what you want to talk about.
Another strategy is to express your response in the context of a larger issue.
For example, if your innocent client is being accused publicly in the press of evading paying his local city business taxes, but is one of many more individuals who haven’t received their tax bills, then wouldn’t it behoove you to respond to this false charge by a hungry reporter by commenting on the mistake and ineptness of the city rather than dodging their calls?
If you believe there is even a small chance that your legal representation of a high-profile, unique or significant individual or organization could be of interest to the media, then it is worthwhile to prepare before any interviews or ambushes ensue.
The first exercise to undertake is to anticipate the media’s possible questions ahead of time.
Jot down anticipated questions, and be certain you know how to address each one. Be sure to include basic, easy questions, as well as more difficult questions that could be asked. It is much better to be overprepared than caught off-guard.
Second, anticipate negative questions. Put yourself in your interviewer’s shoes. Determine which potentially negative questions are most likely to be asked and turn them into positive responses.
One last piece of common-sense advice: By all means, if you don’t know the answer to a reporter’s questions, don’t wing it. Assure the reporter you will find and provide the requested information in a timely manner, or refer him or her to another source. Three words to never be afraid of saying “I don’t know.” And be sure to call them back. They will remember.
Good media relations skills mean finding solutions to working more effectively with the press, not avoiding it altogether. •
Jeff Jubelirer is the principal of Jubelirer Strategies. He leads the development and execution of all aspects of its clients’ strategic communications programs, including media relations, issue and crisis management, and community relations. He also is an adjunct professor in crisis communication at Temple University.