why "No Comment" is no good:
The problem with "no comment" is that it really is a
comment – sometimes the worst comment one can make. It may imply guilt where
there is none. It can sound blasé or incompetent.
A narrative will take shape, with or without the newsmaker’s input, and by declining
comment, the person at the center of the story may miss the opportunity to
influence how the story is framed.
The media can be relentless. But whether a newsmaker is giving a friendly
one-on-one interview or is surrounded by reporters shoving microphones in his
or her face, a "no comment" response can be a damning answer to any
An interview on CNN Money with Sam’s Club CEO Rosalind Brewer showed the
risks of a "no comment" answer and the danger it poses to even the
most seasoned executives.
Towards the end of the interview, CNN correspondent Poppy Harlow
asked Brewer, "Some think you would have been a great fit as the new CEO
of Target. Did they come talk to you?"
"No comment," said Brewer, with a laugh.
Whether Brewer was nervous, caught off-guard, or bound by the sensitivities
of a potential negotiation process, her dodging eclipsed the strong, convincing
points she had made earlier in the interview.
For a person burrowed in the middle of a story, the best approach is to
shape the narrative rather than allowing the narrative to shape you. And it is
important to do it early.
There is a scramble by all parties to quickly collect information and
present the story to the public. At this stage, prospects are better, if not
best, for the unfolding narrative to be shaped closest to what the person at
the heart of it desires.
Brewer had been speaking in detail about the actions that Sam’s Club took to
alter its operational structure to cater to Millennials and changing consumer
behavior. But the headline for her CNN Money interview became "Sam's Club CEO: 'No comment' on Target job."
The story could have solidified trust in Brewer’s leadership and progress
toward the company’s business objectives. Instead, it might have raised
questions among employees and investors about her commitment as Sam’s Club
Interaction with the media is a constant challenge for spokespeople who have
to find ways to answer what are at times incredibly difficult questions. It can
be challenging to answer hostile, leading questions that seem to transform an
interview or press conference into a courtroom confrontation.
Simply hoping that such questions won’t arise – or, worse, winging it if
they do come up – can have disastrous results.
When a crisis happens to a firm or organization, whether true or perceived,
the public demands accountability. There may be scathing op-eds in top-tier
publications or a decrease in revenue for the firm. There may even be protests
outside its doors.
So what is the "no comment" solution?
Craft a core-messages platform that anticipates the most likely and
challenging questions. By prioritizing certain key points of information into a
logical flow and weaving them into answers to reporters’ questions, it is
possible to avoid a "no comment" response.
If one has effective core messages, repeated clearly and often, they have a
greater likelihood of being picked up by reporters in news stories and
Brewer should have said, "It would be more appropriate to ask Target
who they are interviewing. My focus is on Sam’s Club and ensuring that the
company continues to grow and succeed by responding to the evolving needs of
That being said, the reporter might have been anticipating a rehearsed
response; she likely had heard similar answers from polished CEOs. Still, the
conversation might well have returned to Brewer’s earlier core messages,
diffusing the situation.
While we know this "be prepared" solution is simple, you’d be
surprised how often in a complicated situation – or when the camera is on –
smart people forget.
There are, of course, times when it is not only appropriate, but also
legally necessary to say "no comment." For example, during a
potential or ongoing merger or acquisition, multiple securities laws could be
violated by any official comment or acknowledgement that the process is taking
place. It is common practice in such situations – and expected by seasoned
M&A reporters who have to ask the question anyway – to provide a "no
But "no comment" should not be used as a crutch. The media should
not be viewed as an adversary looking to attack or bring a company to its
knees. Rather, every interaction with the media is an opportunity to convey the
firm’s messages and advance its business objectives. If the media isn’t
provided the messages, they will infer or create them, sometimes with
unpleasant results. Even worse, when the other side is talking and you are not,
whose messages do you think will shape the story?
Don’t let your silence become the story. Use
your narrative to write the story.
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