Is It Ever OK to Respond “No Comment” to a Reporter?

Yes, but not in those exact words.

No comment

To comment or not to comment?

The conventional wisdom for media interviews is that you never say “no comment” when a reporter asks you a question you can’t or don’t want to answer.

You Must Answer the Question

Of course, you can’t give the reporter confidential company information, or comment during the quite period preceding an IPO. But you cannot ignore the question. You don’t want to use the words “no comment,” which is like waving a red flag. But many interview subjects think they can simply stonewall the reporter and bridge back to their key messages.

That is a big mistake. The reporter will think you’re hiding something when you don’t answer his question. So he will use different words to ask the same question until you answer. You are not obligated to answer every question. However, you are obliged to respond.

Here is an example of a candidate for office who refuses to answer a question about aid to military families. When he’s ignored, the reporter continues to dog him with repeated questions. It doesn’t help that the candidate seems more interested in a sports car than helping the military:

It would have diffused the situation if the candidate had simply stated, “That’s an important concern for our veterans and I’m exploring all the options. I’ll have a statement out shortly about what I think should be done.”

If you cannot answer, reply, “I am not at liberty to say.” State whether someone else in your organization is permitted to discuss the subject and then offer to make the introduction.

Appeal to common sense with, “I’m sure you appreciate the sensitivity of what you’re asking,” or “That’s proprietary business information, and it would be inappropriate for me to discuss it,” or, “What I can tell you is . . . ” and restate your key message.

If you don’t know the answer, say so, and state the likelihood of providing a response. If you can get the answer, be sure to follow up with the reporter, as promised.

Take Your Time

Frequently, when a reporter says you did not answer the question, she really means that you did not answer the way she had hoped you would.

Beware of:

  • Responding too quickly. Think. Take some time before answering. Pause for a couple of seconds. It may seem like a lifetime to you, but you’re allowed to think through your answers.
  • Answering “squirmer” questions. These are the questions that make you squirm because they’re difficult to answer. Be ready with the appropriate responses to the questions you can’t or don’t want to answer.
  • Being drawn into a trap. Beware of pauses and hypothetical questions. A frequent technique used by reporters is to ask “and…?” They’re hoping you’ll fill the blank space with juicy tidbits. When you’re finished, stop talking. If there’s a pause, use it to review a previous point, not to ramble.
  • Being afraid of not knowing the answer. Even when you’ve prepared for the interview, you can’t anticipate every question. It may be that the reporter’s editor cornered him before the interview and told him to ask you certain questions. Or, some bad news relating to your company or industry might have been reported just prior to the interview. Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know the answer to a question. Say you will get back to the reporter or say it’s something you won’t be able to answer at all.
  • Lying. Don’t ever lie. The reporter will find out and that news outlet will blackball you.

So, in answer to our own question about whether it’s OK to respond “No comment.” Yes, you can, in so many other words.

What responses do you use when you get a question from a reporter that you don’t want to answer?

1 comment to Is It Ever OK to Respond “No Comment” to a Reporter?

  • John Marcus

    You made excellent points about the importance of preparing for an interview and not being reluctant to take a few seconds before answerig a reporter’s question. That will prevent giving an answer along the lines of, “Oh, you can see Russia from Alaska.”

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