No comment, no firing

13 October 2005

In his musings, PR Stuart Bruce is surprised that PRs need to be told of the dangers of the "no comment" reply to hacks' questions.

Well, there's still plenty of it going on, although few restrict themselves to the simple "no comment". People have found slightly more imaginative ways to try to fend off the questions they'd rather not answer, even though they are not necessarily more effective. Or, there is always the run-and-hide option, which is often the most popular: "Company X did not respond to questions..." or "Company X was approached for comment but did not return calls at the time of going to press".

For reasons I can't fathom, Steve Rubel of Micropersuasion said he thought not returning calls was a better option than the "no comment" option:

I even learned long ago to let calls from certain reporters go to voicemail if necessary. This forces journalists to write such-and-such “didn't return calls” as opposed to “didn't comment.” (It's subtle, but it sounds better.)

It's subtle, alright. It makes you look panicky scared or just plain incompetent on top of the other claims you were otherwise going to "no commment".

I can understand that there are good reasons for reaching for the stock answer or just letting the phone ring on. As the PR hears the question, it may not be uppermost in their mind, but there will be a thought running around in there: "What's the safest thing I can say or do to avoid getting sacked?". In this context, saying the bare minimum is generally safer than volunteering information that is definitely going to lead to a P45 (or pink slip, depending on where you happen to be reading this).

You might not have made the situation any better but at least you cannot be blamed for making it worse. It has become so common to the conversation, we even seem to have degrees of it. I once had a PR argue the toss over whether she was refusing to comment, or just declining on the basis that declining sounded "less forceful". I guess refusing to comment to her meant slamming the phone down or something. And we only got to that point because she was previously trying out one of the less direct phrases that are now reaching epidemic point.

Sometimes, these newer phrases like "it was a business decision" seem to work out for the PR, as noted by Dan Janal in June on a story in which two restaurants used the same non-answer to try to avoid giving up any precious detail about closures and layoffs. Although the reporter did not look to test the response, it surely invites a comeback: "What were the non-business reasons you considered for closing your restaurant?"

It's a little like my least-favourite non-stick non-answer that is spreading like wildfire round the tech world: "We haven't made any announcement on that". This is one that seems to be used by people who have just come off a morning's worth of media training, because, in face-to-face situations they look kind of smug when they say it (in a "look at me ma, I remembered some of that training" kind of way). And people look genuinely surprised when you come back on it: "I'm aware that you haven't announced anything, that's why I'm asking the question. If you had, I wouldn't need to ask it. Now..."