Just Say ‘No’ to Reporters

Where is it written that you have to answer every question posed by a reporter? Too many spokespeople have the wrong view of a media interview. They respond as if they're in another Q&A setting: school. In school, we knew there was usually a correct answer to each question. And if we did well, we were rewarded. There's another reason we all answered the questions from teachers. They were in control, and we weren't. While a media interview doesn't give a spokesperson total control, there's a lot more control than in school. So when you don't want to answer a question you don't have to. Nonetheless, ever since the days of the Nixon presidency, saying "no comment" was tantamount to saying "Guilty as charged." So it's a little more complicated than just saying no to a reporter, i.e., "I'm not answering that question." Because if that's all you do, you've given control back to a reporter, and he or she goes to the next question on the list. Often you can negotiate by saying, "I'm not answering that question for this reason. However, what I can share with you is...." And then you are off and running (or "bridging," as we media trainers like to say). Do reporters like being told "no"? No. They get rewarded when they uncover information that others don't have. But as much as a media interview is not a school room test, it is not a deposition where there are penalties for not answering. The caveat: too many "no's," even with good reasons, can lead to a loss of credibility. Knowing what you can offer instead of the direct answer to the question is key. In the often-quoted song, Paul Simon had 50 ways to leave your lover. I'm not sure there are that many ways to say no to a reporter, but here are a few of the categories: 1. Proprietary information. Any reporter would love to have information that you or your company considers proprietary. How to answer: "That's proprietary." Or, "I'm sure our competitors would love to know that." The bridge: "Here's what I can tell you." There are several sub-sets of proprietary information. These include: Products in development. "We don't comment on what we're working on. We hope it's as successful as the prior product ___." Financial information: With Reg FD and overall greater scrutiny of company books, it is improper to give information to the press that is not given to the general public. This includes any information that could be considered "material" for investors to know, such as financial results, acquisitions or sales, expansion plans. Results of studies and tests. "We don't announce results before the study is completed. What I can share with you is the protocol for the test." 2. Litigation. Information shared with a reporter in a matter under litigation could affect the outcome of a proceeding. You don't want to answer questions in depositions, in regulatory hearings or in court based upon a news account. Answer: "That's a matter of litigation, so I can't comment on the court proceedings. Here's what we stated in our court papers." 3. Bashing of competitors. Reporters like to pit one side against the other. They always like it if you comment, a.k.a., bash your competitors. Unless there is a strategic reason to do so, it's best to take the high road. "You'll have to ask them this question. What I can say from our point of view is... ." Or "We wish them well with their new product. Here's why we believe ours is better... ." 4. Privacy/Personal issues. Sharing your personal opinions is always risky business. Your personal view will never be viewed as such; it will be interpreted as a company view. Questions about salaries, benefits and other matters are considered private. 5. Speculation. Why does a reporter ask you to speculate? Because he/she and all competitors probably have the same information. So the game is to find out something new and be the first to report on it. Speculative questions begin with phrases like, "What if..." "Suppose..." "Let's look out a few months... ." You have no obligation to go beyond the facts. Phrases like, "That's a hypothetical..." "You're asking me to speculate..." "We don't have a crystal ball..." are helpful in this situation. 6. Crisis Speculation. The rule against speculating is even more critical in a crisis. Never say more than you can confirm. This relates to injuries, rumors, damages, number of injured, when operations will be restored, legal action, etc. Yes, reporters want new information, but that doesn't mean you have to supply it if there is none. It's All in the Attitude One of the keys to not answering a reporter is your attitude and your ability to negotiate. You can say, no. Or you can put a smile on your face and politely tell a reporter that you can't answer certain questions. If you then have some information you can share - the negotiation - you won't harm the relationship. You might even advance the relationship. Don't let the reporter wear you down. Once you say no to a question, a reporter will occasionally keep asking the question in a slightly different way. If it sounds like the same question, it is. Again, keep smiling. It's even okay to tell a reporter, "That sounds like the same question." Andrew Gilman (agilman@commcoreconsulting.com) is president of CommCore Consulting Group in Washington, D.C. He has been a communications consultant for more than 20 years and is co-author of Get to the Point (Bantam, 1990).

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