“No comment” and other things you thought were a good idea

In media training yesterday I went through the usual things – with a strong candidate who had no experience talking with the press. He absorbed the lot, processing it by having to know the reason for everything, and the day was an absolute pleasure as a result.

One of the many things he queried then accepted was the idea of never saying “no comment”. He’d heard this and seen it and thought it should be acceptable.

I could see why, but have another think. If a journalist asks someone “do you beat your partner” and they respond “no comment”, does that look like a denial or a dodge? Loads of people will assume violence is indeed happening.

There are a number of techniques to get away from awkward or impossible areas, but “no comment” isn’t one of them. It always sounds defensive, and gives us (the journalists) an option to say you declined to comment on (fill in the sensitive issue of your choice here). Far better to bridge into something else if you can. “That’s an important issue but what’s really bothering our customers is…” or “There are always different views, but our focus is…” and then carry on with the point you needed to make.

Other misconceptions

Popular media has ironically given rise to a number of other bad ideas about the “rules” governing the press. Here are a few, and I’ll put more on future blog entries as they occur to me:

  • Saying “allegedly” means you can say anything. No you can’t, the libel laws apply to allegations – that’s the whole point. “Have I Got News For You” has used “allegedly” for comic effect – tell me I’m a thief, allegedly, and I can still sue.
  • You can instruct a journalist not to use a quote after you’ve said it. No, in the UK at least it’s our job to report what was said and to be accurate. We’re not your PR department so you don’t get to vet your quotes afterwards and amend them to reflect what you wish you’d said instead.
  • If you’re a blogger you can speak without the constraints of libel laws. Actually you’re covered by the same restraints that protect everybody else; your subject may decide you probably have insufficient funds to make it worth suing you, but that’s their decision and not something based on any extra rights you might have.

I’d welcome any other examples as comments.

Information on my media training sessions is here – get in touch any time if you have any questions.