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No Comment… The Worst Phrase in PR?

I can think of no two worse words in PR than “no comment.” You might as well say “guilty as charged,” because that is how that phrase is most often interpreted. The phrase “no comment” is legalistic and should have no place in the PR lexicon.

Yet, just last week, GOP presidential candidate (and former Speaker of the House) Newt Gingrich uttered these two incriminatory words in response to questions about his personal finances, which include a reported half-million dollar debt to Tiffany & Co. For a man who has been in politics for more than 30 years, he should have known better than to use “no comment.” People who use “no comment” use it because it’s what they have seen on TV and the movies; not those who have had PR pros directing their every professional move since 1978!

When dealing with hostile or negative questions, it’s best to remain calm and keep your answers short. So to help Gingrich (and others), I’ve compiled a list of 5 better phrases than “no comment”:

1. I don’t have anything to say

2. That’s not what I’m here to discuss

3. I’m unable to talk about that (Use this only if legal counsel has told you not to comment, otherwise you can be pegged a liar which is almost just as bad as using “no comment”.)

4. No (If asked a direct question that is untrue, simply reply “no”. For example, “Newt, isn’t it true that you owe more than a million dollars to Tiffany’s?” or “Newt do you want to comment about your Tiffany debt?” Note: when a reporter asks “do you have a comment…” they are often baiting a person into saying “no comment.”)

5. Smile and say nothing (while not a phrase, this is always the best option. Remember, media cannot repeat what you do not say.)

What do you think? Is there ever a good time to say “no comment?” Do you have a suggestion for another alternative?

  • Laura

    in some cases it´s useful: “Business as usual”

  • http://www.PublicityHound.net Joan Stewart, The Publicity Hound

    “That question is insulting, and I’m not going to answer it.”

    “I wouldn’t use that choice of words. If you are asking whether (rephrase the question), I can tell you that…”

    ““I don’t have all the facts to be able to answer that question accurately. But I can tell you that…” Then continue with your key point.

    “I agree we’ve got a problem and I’d like to go directly to our solution.” Then state your key point.

    • Jocelyn Broder

      Great adds, Joan.

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  • http://www.thewellynngroup.com Richard Wells

    You are absolutely right that “no comment” should never be used, and you would think that a politician like Newt would have mastered the “responsive non-response” already. His performance here is baffling. That said, I’m not sure I’d counsel a client to use any of these alternatives. For one thing, these answers only work if you have something additional you can add to bridge to your key message. “That’s not what I’m here to discuss, but what I am here to discuss is…” “I’m unable to talk about that (which begs the question–why are you unable to talk about it?), but what I can talk about is…”

    Smiling and saying nothing does not seem helpful, because the reporter is just going to ask the same question over and over until he or she gets some kind of response. If I were counseling Newt I would have suggested a reply such as: “I’m happy to discuss this issue. I’ve been fortunate to have been very successful in my business pursuits since leaving Congress, and my account with Tiffany’s reflects that I enjoy sharing my good fortune with family and friends. I fulfill all my financial obligations, unlike President Obama (bridge to key message about the federal deficit).”

  • http://hoop.la Rosemary ONeill

    From a business owner’s perspective, the worst quote is “ABC did not respond to our request for comment” or “ABC was unavailable by presstime…” That seems even worse, making it read as though ABC is hiding.

  • Buck Banks

    My favorite related OTR line was told to me by a journalist who said a PR pro said in response to her question: “Off the record … no comment.”

  • http://husenudaipuri@yahoo.com HUSEN UDAIPURI

    The suggetions are good . We can use in some cases.Key points are good.

  • Spiderlogic

    When asked, I would laugh and say, “next question.” Makes it sound like answering would be a complete waste of everyone’s time.

  • Glenn Hansen

    There are far worse responses than “no comment” – silence being the most damning. Of course, readers coming in with all sorts of pre-conceived notions will read a “no comment” response and make it mean whatever they like. A reporter should never do that, and should be far more pleased to hear “no comment” than to hear nothing at all. It’s worse for a subject (company rep, politician, accused, etc.) to not reply at all.

  • Sammy

    “No comment” is NEVER useful. If you can’t or don’t want to answer a question, explain why. “I can’t discuss that because it involves personnel matters,” or “We don’t talk about our business strategies because our competitors would love to have that information.” “No comment” always suggests you’re hiding something or you’re guilty. Nor would I say to a reporter that the question was insulting or that you would use a different choice or words. That will do nothing more than anger the reporter and draw the audience to the reporter’s side.

  • http://www.haigjackson.com Jeff Jackson

    Thanks for raising the topic – though it’s hard to believe we have to keep repeating the lesson that “no comment” should never cross anyone’s lips. In this case, however, some clarity about who said what.

    It was actually a Gingrich spokesperson – not Gingrich – who emailed “no comment” in response to the Politico reporter’s questions about the Tiffany debt. (One would hope a spokesperson w0uld know better!)

    Asked about the matter in a subsequent broadcast interview, Ginrich himself said, “I’ve just decided if it doesn’t relate to a better future for America, if it doesn’t relate to helping the American people, if it doesn’t relate to solving our problems from here on out my answer is going to be ‘I’m not commenting on it,’ and people can decide if you want to play Trivial Pursuit that is fine. But I’m going to play Trivial Pursuit. I’m going to try to help this country get back on track.”

    Like him or hate him, agree or disagree with his views, but Gingrich’s words are a model for handling these types of gotcha question: 1) decline to address them, 2) explain precisely why.

  • http://www.ascendcomm.com Lorelei Harloe

    If the question pertains to a competitive industry, don’t be roped into trying to offer a response that you don’t have the current information/news/data for — say that you’re not an expert on X, they’ll have to go to that source/org.

  • Dina Diche

    A phrase that has lost its impact. Bad social media strategy.

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  • Nick Elam

    o Hi, I am currently taking a Strategic Communications course, and I found this crisis to be really interesting. It seems as though the phrase “no comment” is detrimental to ones reputation. After looking at news articles surrounding Gingrich’s comment, I can definitely see where everyone is coming from. Coming from a crisis management perspective it is interesting exploring ways of solving Gingrich’s problem. Obviously he isn’t contesting for the presidency anymore, but does anyone have a suggestion for how Gingrich could have possibly solved this issue in a timely manner and gained back his credibility? I deduce that everyone here sees the phrase “no comment” to be an absolute route to poor reputations. Is there any way out of it? Thoughts?

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  • Ruxandra

    A no-comment answer, in most of the cases, shows that you have something to hide, or you were caught unprepared. I think it’s always better give an answer as media, when it does not have information, starts inventing it. So it’s better to see your own story in the newspapers, than an invented one. Does a no-comment answer necessarily imply lying? Not really, but this specific phrase can be interpreted in so many ways that it is better to paraphrase it..

    I have recently written an article on NO-COMMENT answers from a PR perspective and I would be really interested in your comments on it: http://ethicalblabbing.wordpress.com/2012/10/27/no-comment/