Tim Downs: In defence of ‘No comment’

Tim Downs's picture

It’s pretty common these days in communications webinars and virtual workshops to hear “under no circumstances should you ever respond with no comment”. In interview scenarios this is absolutely true. However, in a small but often very critical number of situations, specifically when responding to media enquiries, it can still be a useful device in the PR toolkit, writes Tim Downs, Director of Aberfield.

What we’re specifically talking about here is crisis communications and issues management, as you don’t plan a “no comment” into proactive campaigns. In these circumstances, there are instances where even providing a non-committal holding statement is still just enough to tip the balance between the media running a story or not. You know the type: “we have been made aware of…”, “investigations are ongoing…”, “it would be inappropriate to comment…”, “we remain committed to…” etc.

A well-timed “no comment” at this point can have a far better outcome for clients than even the blandest of statements. And here’s why. In these days of under-resourced and time-pressed journalists, providing any statement is sometimes all they are looking for to ‘stand up’ or legitimise a story that otherwise they might struggle to run at all, particularly if it includes accusations that could involve future legal action.

Now a “no comment” is unlikely to kill the story completely, but it can help to give an organisation the extra time it might need to carry out internal investigations, gather more accurate information or take the appropriate action before the story becomes public.

And that extra time can be invaluable when it comes to the reputation of the organisation and the longer-term impact of the story.

"It’s not your job to write journalists’ stories for them"

It takes a strong nerve and experience to choose the right moment for this approach, so how do you recognise the few occasions when “no comment” might be the best response?

The first tip is to ask yourself whether you should be commenting at all. Quite often in the rush to communicate, predicated by the digital and social age, it seems that the first question both agency and in-house teams ask themselves is “what shall we say?”, when “should we be commenting at all?” is the right place to start.

In the eye of an apparent media storm it’s hugely important to be able to take a step back and look at exactly what your role and position is within the story. In some cases, the media might be coming to you because they haven’t been able to get a comment from anyone else, so are you central to the story or are you a peripheral player?

The second tip is to remember it’s not your job to write journalists’ stories for them. It’s here that the worlds of communications and journalism commonly run into conflict.

If you’ve ever been contacted by a journalist saying that they have heard speculation or a source has made allegations, only to then finish with the phrase “can you confirm that…”, sometimes it’s OK to say no.

Properly trained journalists require knowledge of the law to make sure that stories don’t run without corroboration and it often requires an editor’s judgement on when they feel they have reached the burden of proof. If they have what they need, then a “no comment” isn’t an option, but that should be pretty clear based on how detailed the enquiry is.

If there remains a nervousness about running a story, here is where providing a statement can give the publication the confidence to push ahead, precisely because you have responded.   

A “no comment” can make all the difference.

Don’t get me wrong, this can lead to some pretty hacked off journalists, but while they might be concerned about their exclusive, communications professionals have to take into consideration a much wider range of factors - from HR to legal - because how they respond can have implications that could put an entire organisation at risk.

That is a significant responsibility so taking the time to get it right is hugely important and if a “no comment” can help, then it’s a valuable technique, even if it does make you unpopular in the newsroom.

My only caveat to this is that it should be used sparingly and wisely. It’s a judgement call and more often than not a temporary measure, so if it does create a little breathing space, use it to properly plan your messaging for when you do choose to communicate.