Media Relations: Don’t Comment with “No Comment”

The term “no comment” is conventionally viewed among government communicators and media relations professionals as leaving a negative perception with the interviewer and the audience. This is because “no comment” often implies there’s something sinister going on – whether that’s true or not.

Why “No Comment”?

“It seems obvious after the fact, but ‘no comment’ is, in and of itself, a comment.”

Offering no comment allows the press to fill in the blanks, diverts the focus of the publicity, and sacrifices an opportunity to communicate…”

“No comment” is: “the journalistic equivalent to ‘taking the fifth.’ You refuse to answer on the grounds that your answers may tend to incriminate you. Many people equate the phrase with an admission of guilt…Those two words [no comment] are deadly because they imply you have something to hide. There are other ways to convey the same message. Be creative.”

Use these phrases instead

Rather than stating “no comment,” other language can and should be used. The following are some examples:

1) “We can’t rule anything in or out at this time.”

2) “The agency is prohibited by law from confirming or denying that information” (if applicable)

3) “We are assessing/studying/evaluating/investigating the situation/issue/policy/ruling and will have a complete response shortly once all the facts are learned.”

4) “Rather than commenting on that right now, let me first point out…”

5) “It’s premature to comment on that at this time, however…”

6) “That’s an interesting question, but what you should really be asking is…”

7) “Let’s look at this issue from a broader perspective…”

8) “There is an equally important concern…”

9) “Let’s not forget the underlying problem..”

10) “That point may have some validity, but…”

Also, see “Tip 8” in “Conducting Media Interviews: Ten Tips

Don’t answer with “I don’t know the answer”

Answering a question with the phrase “I don’t know the answer” may be disingenuous at best, or foolhardy at worst. In fact, professional communicators may very well know the answer, but they have received specific instructions from top leadership not to convey that info to the media.

Further, if a government communicator really doesn’t know an answer (even “on background” or “off the record”), that may raise the question of whether that spokesperson is being cut out of the info loop inside their agency/organization. If so, this may damage one’s credibility, and/or that of the agency, with the press and public.

Thus, from the vantage point of govt communicators, saying “no comment” or “I don’t know the answer” is not the best response and will usually have unintended, detrimental consequences. While not answering a question directly or completely may in fact annoy a given media outlet or its audience, that’s often better than providing misinformation, incomplete information, damaging information, or no information at all.

As noted in prior posts, the govt communicator works for the government; the news media now work for Corporate America, which owns much of the “Fourth Estate”

The reality of the 21st century information age is — more and more — old fashioned journalism is being replaced by modern day sensationalism and socalled “info-tainment” disguised as real news.

Anyone care to comment on that?

Also see:

Media Relations: Shaping the Story

Talking to Reporters: Ten Tips

*** All views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only.

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David B. Grinberg

Comments anyone? Please don’t tell me you “have no comment” or “I don’t know the answer”. Also, please refrain from placing any masking tape over your mouth (per the illustration).


David B. Grinberg

Thanks a lot for the comment, Debbie.

It’s always better to provide something than nothing to the press, even if it’s just a quip or info nugget rather than “no comment.” I lighthearted exchange with reporters sometimes works best when being interrogated for further details.

A recent example in the news is how WH press sec Jay Carney responded to repeated and aggressive questioning about the special WH home beer recipe. Carney wasn’t about to reveal the secret recipe to reporters, but he still had to say something. Thus, he engaged the press with some light rhetorical banter, according to Reuters, which proved effective in shutting down the conversation:

(bold added for emphasis)

Reuters reports: “Revelations about the White House beer came to light after the president gave a bottle of it to a patron at a coffee shop he was visiting in Iowa. The gift prompted the press corps traveling with Obama to ask for more details and White House spokesman Jay Carney was peppered with questions about the first family’s beverage of choice.”

“There is a home brew, if you will, at the White House,” Carney told reporters.

“The beer, named White House Honey Ale, comes in both a light and dark variety. The honey portion of the drink is taken from first lady Michelle Obama’s garden beehive. I think I’ve only tried the light, and it’s quite refreshing,” Carney confessed, although he admitted that he wasn’t a beer aficionado.

Pressed for further details of the beer, Carney said: “I have exhausted my knowledge about this subject. Usually, when someone hands me a beer I don’t ask how it was made, I just drink it.”

The point here is that govt communicators need to humor the press at times and use creative language for a “non-answer” response. Rarely will professional comms folks resort to “no comment” or “I don’t know the answer” — which the media may take as a cold slap in the face.

Again this is just a light-heartes example, albeit a telling one.