The Misconstrued Power Of ‘No Comment’
By Evan Nierman, founder & CEO of Red Banyan, an international crisis communications firm, and author of Amazon bestseller Crisis Averted.
It’s a phrase you’ve probably used many times when a reporter calls with questions about a case. You don’t want to jeopardize anything so you cut the conversation short and get back to work. Case closed.
But is that really the best action to take?
From a strategic communications standpoint, it can be a big mistake to pass up a chance to comment. A determined reporter is going to write a story with or without your perspective. By saying “no comment,” you are relinquishing your power to steer the narrative in your organization’s favor. Even worse, you may be handing that power over to someone on the other side who will get their version of the facts on the record first.
The court of public opinion matters. The saying, “he who creates the narrative controls the narrative,” holds much truth.
This brings me back to the power of the phrase, “no comment.” In truth, when you say, “no comment,” there’s almost always someone else who will be willing to weigh in. Anyone who believes they can control the narrative with this catchphrase is in for a big surprise.
Here are some viable options:
• If you feel comfortable speaking with the media, reframe the question in a light that is more constructive for your organization and then share your perspective on the issue.
• If you are uncomfortable dealing with reporters, designate a company spokesperson to handle media questions, which can also give you more time to formulate a solid response. However, make sure the spokesperson returns calls or reporters will find the information somewhere else.
• Hire a strategic communications firm to handle media inquiries. Professional communications agencies can help craft an effective strategy that shapes the narrative so it best reflects the company’s interests.
Remember, if you don’t speak up or answer questions in some manner, the reporter is going to go somewhere else. Reporters survive on information, and if you are not going to provide answers that benefit your client, someone else may craft a message that casts your client in a negative light.
Then you will be forced to respond on someone else’s terms. And that is the worst scenario possible if you want to promote your client’s case.
And that’s not all that can go awry. Right or wrong, a non-answer can imply guilt. And working with the media can also turn a reporter’s call into a relationship-building opportunity that provides perspective and establishes trust.
We like to believe in a presumption of innocence, and we’re told that when someone “pleads the fifth,” we are not supposed to label them innocent or guilty. But people tend to be skeptics.
When someone refuses to answer, we become suspicious and wonder if they are hiding something. The longer you opt out of the conversation, the longer someone else’s narrative becomes associated with the truth.
Understanding the value of working with reporters as a means of pressing the truth, establishing the narrative and influencing public opinion can strategically benefit your business. And working with reporters both on and off the record can provide them with important background information that lends perspective and insight.
A reporter with background on an issue may decide to hold an article and wait for more information, or they may kill the piece after learning the complete scenario is less compelling than originally portrayed. That is why two-way communication can be incredibly important.
Airing the untold side of a story can have profound consequences and may even help a targeted business or individual take back a narrative that may have been spinning out of control. Sometimes facts on their face don’t tell the full tale.
Organizations that do not have relationships with the media are probably not thinking about the strategic value of communications. And when you look through that prism, there are many reasons a simple “no comment” seems prudent.
But the power of public opinion should never be ignored. Talking points and targeted messaging that redirect the narrative so it places your organization in a more favorable light can be necessary to show that there is more to the story than meets the eye.
“No comment” doesn’t always have to be your comment. Providing information to the media on your terms can allow you to influence the narrative instead of simply handing over control to the other side.