Published on October 19, 2018, at 6:10 p.m.
by Elizabeth Summers.
The two most detrimental words in the public relations dictionary are “no comment.” Lessons in crisis communication often reiterate the harmful impact of those words from the start. Regardless of your motive, the phrase “no comment” resembles a fear of addressing a situation.
Often, the phrase is associated with guilt. An article on Forbes stated, “When asked to comment, never reply with ‘no comment.’ Even if you’re still assessing a situation, simply say that. If you don’t have a voice in the matter, people immediately assume guilt or make their own suppositions.”
PR professionals are hired to promote an image that withstands a brand reputation crisis. The phrase “no comment” does not fulfill that duty. As professionals, it is necessary to analyze the crisis, predict the media’s questions and strategically plan a response. Although crises are inevitable, well-planned responses can be a huge cushion to damages. Always utilize an encounter with the media as an opportunity to promote your brand.
“The best approach is to shape the narrative rather than allowing the narrative to shape you,” an article in PRWeek by Ben Rosner noted. “And it is important to do it early.” Tough questions from the media are unavoidable. Rosner added, “Simply hoping that such questions won’t arise – or, worse, winging it if they do come up – can have disastrous results.”
Brands should utilize the opportunity to shape the story in their favor. “A narrative will take shape, with or without the newsmaker’s input,” Rosner explained. “By declining comment, the person at the center of the story may miss the opportunity to influence how the story is framed.”
Bill Cosby, once known as “America’s Dad” for his television presence on “The Cosby Show,” was recently sentenced to prison for sexual assault against Andrea Constand. In an attempt to avoid a sexual assault discussion in an interview with Associated Press Entertainment, Cosby dodged a question pertaining to allegations by responding with “no response.” In a National Public Radio article, the repercussions of Cosby’s reaction are analyzed: “Listeners and viewers can derive additional texture and meaning from facial expressions, pauses, the freight carried in a voice. In this case, the shake of a head, a plea and a rebuke convey much more than a simple “no comment,” even when the words are substantially the same.”
The power of strategic planning allows you to redirect the anticipated question to a preferred course. People gravitate toward substantial information. Therefore, people feel unsatisfied by statements such as “no comment.”
An article on CBS News recommended stronger alternatives: “Develop and practice a few different stock phrases that stand in for ‘no comment’ such as: ‘I’m sorry, but that information is confidential.’ or ‘I’m sorry, but I’m not able to answer that question at this time.’” This approach addresses the question, but provides a valid reason why it cannot be further discussed.
Additionally, Rosner suggested creating core messages addressing anticipated questions: “Craft a core-messages platform that anticipates the most likely and challenging questions. By prioritizing certain key points of information into a logical flow and weaving them into answers to reporters’ questions, it is possible to avoid a ‘no comment’ response.”
Given that crisis communication can be difficult, the “no comment” phrase can result from panic when confronted with a tricky question. “But ‘no comment’ should not be used as a crutch,” explained Rosner. “The media should not be viewed as an adversary looking to attack or bring a company to its knees. Rather, every interaction with the media is an opportunity to convey the firm’s messages and advance its business objectives.”
Considering that every media coverage opportunity is a potential advantage, many brands hire trained spokespeople to handle crisis communication. Spokespeople understand the brand comprehensively and are able to appropriately handle the media, regardless of the intensity of the crisis. An article on PR News explained, “A great spokesperson will earn the public’s trust. During a crisis, which is usually where corporate spokespeople are introduced, being an effective spokesperson is a tremendous advantage.”
The bottom line is, if you chose to make no comment, you sacrifice your power to steer the conversation surrounding your brand in a preferred direction. PR professionals serve to protect the brand, and “no comment” indicates insecurity. Analyze the situation, generate key points and proceed confidently.