The Power (and Perils) of ‘No Comment’

, Sep 6, 2016

CATEGORIES: Public Relations
TAGS: , ,

We live in a media landscape fueled by social rumor, speculation and fact-free conclusion. Depending on your relationship to the story going through the meat grinder in today’s news cycle, it’s either a lot of fun to watch or deeply horrifying. (Sometimes both, simultaneously, let’s be honest.) For brands, it’s the perfect environment for two little words – “no comment” – to take on a life of their own and spiral out of control. But sometimes they feel unavoidable.

Last week, Twitter experienced a textbook case of the “no comment” spiral when a board member answered the question of whether the company can continue independently with a simple “no comment.” In Twitter’s case, the blurt actually resulted in an explosion of social media speculation about its true meaning and a 6 percent boost to its lagging share price.

It was a clear demonstration of the power of speculation and the mere suggestion that M&A might be on the struggling company’s horizon – something the company got a taste of in early August, too. Erin Griffiths over at Fortune suggested in today’s Data Sheet that it might be because the world wants Twitter to sell – this may, in some ways, have been a sign of pending dream realization for those of us who have watched Twitter falter and flag over the last few years.

This is a rare case of “no comment” resulting in short-term gains (in the long-term, time will tell, although it was definitely a way for the company to hang out a “For Sale” sign if that was its intention). In actuality, “no comment” has the power to strike fear into the hearts of any good PR person.

While on the surface it sounds like a phrase that will shut down a certain line of questioning, it instead has the power to open up Pandora’s box – something that we at March strive to communicate in executive media trainings day in and day out. “No comment” leaves journalists and social influencers eager for more, only to come up empty-handed. And, left there to hang out on its own, it opens the field to more questions than it silences.

So what is a brand spokesperson – from a marketing exec working a trade show through to a CEO or board member – to do when faced with question they’re not at liberty to answer?

It’s important to respond to the question itself, and then bridge your answer to something that you can offer the journalist. For example, if you’re an egg company whose organic eggs have just been found to be sourced from non-organic farmers, a potential response would be, “I’m not in a position to talk about this specific instance…” and then take the journalist through a prepared statement on the company’s dedication to transparency and healthy chickens.

The same methodology applies to questions on financials – “What was your revenue last year?” “I’m not in a position to currently disclose that information, but…” and then go on to share percentage growth, customer wins, or a range of other information. Always bridge to something that you can share so that the journalist doesn’t go away empty-handed, with an uncomfortable “no comment” to play with.

Most of the time, a “no comment” isn’t covering up something more insidious. It’s just a simple lack of preparation, or the play of legalities. But it can add fuel to the social media fire and turn into a blaze that’s out of your control.

So how do you make sure you’re ready for those tough questions, and strike “no comment” from your spokespeople’s vocabulary? It helps having a pre-existing bible of responses to breaking industry news, company growth or loss, and supply chain issues, among many others, depending on the company’s area of focus.

But, without formal media training for spokespeople, those approved responses might all be for naught. That’s why it’s essential to take any public-facing company spokespeople through the ins and outs of press interactions, with a focus on mock-interviews with multiple different journalist personas. While “no comment” looks to have benefited Twitter in this instance, perhaps even as part of a well-honed media strategy in light of previous stock price surges, the average company doesn’t want to put their reputation on the line in the social media churn all because of two little words.