“No comment!” always sounds great in the movies and on TV. Reporters gamely don’t push back and move right on to the next question. But in real life, the world we work in, it’s more likely to be met with “You’re kidding, right? Then why am I on the phone with you?”
I’m not saying that you have to comment on every question asked, or that you need to take an interview and expect to answer questions that don’t help move your business forward, I’m just saying that the statement “no comment” doesn’t play.
Let’s start with why you don’t want to answer certain questions. First, the answer might give away propriety information or a competitive advantage. Second, your company might have a policy that it doesn’t release certain types of information regarding the company’s customers, finances or technology. Third, it might be clear that the reporter or analyst is baiting you to answer something inflammatory or that could be used out of context later. It’s best to have a policy in place before you ever talk to a reporter about what you’re willing to comment on and what you’re not. An interview can quickly become uncomfortable for both you and the reporter if you selectively answer questions only when it’s convenient or opportune for you, and not at other times.
So what do you say when a reporter or analyst asks a question you’d rather not answer? My recommendation is to be honest instead of evasive. Simply say “that’s not information we’re ready to disclose” or “that information is considered proprietary, so we can’t answer that.” Most reporters will respect that type of answer, even if they continue to push to get the answer. Remember, that’s their job. Your job is to stay on message.
Part of the job as a PR person is to help a company or client understand the questions they are likely to get during a news push or cycle and prepare to answer them to the best of their ability. Sometimes, you have to expect hard, specific questions and you’ll need to help prepare your spokesperson accordingly. You are not doing anyone any favors by sugar coating an interview scenario, or ignoring a potential interview angle because it might make someone uncomfortable. This is especially true when the news cycle is bad, or you’re dealing with a crisis situation.
A lot of frustration can be dealt with up front, when you are talking directly with the reporter or producer, letting them know what type of questions your spokesperson can’t answer. This is not to suggest that you ask for all of the questions up front, but if you’re clear on what your client or company can’t discuss, you’re better off than if you just decide to handle if they come up during the interview.
So leave the “no comments” to the big screen and handle awkward questions like a professional. You and your client will be better off in the long run.