Advanced Skill: Comment Without Commenting
Over the past few weeks, I’ve written two stories (here and here) about the perils of saying “no comment.” But I haven’t told you what you should do if you really can’t comment.
Just because you shouldn’t ever use the words “no comment” doesn’t mean you have to reveal everything you know to every reporter who asks. There are many times when you legitimately cannot or should not comment on something.
Here are a few examples of times you might withhold comment:
- Confidential Employee or Patient Records: A reporter asks you for an employee file or the health records of a patient
- Competitive Information: You work for a private company, and a reporter wants to know something about your strategy that would give a competitor an edge
- Lawsuits: You receive guidance from your attorney not to comment on an ongoing court case (especially when the legal risks outweigh the risk of poor communications)
- Labor Action: Your employees are about to go on strike, but you made an agreement with the union that neither side would negotiate in public
- Injury or Death: An employee has been seriously injured or killed, and you want to notify the family before confirming the news to the media
In all of the cases above, your strategy should be to “comment without commenting,” or offer a response that explains why you cannot answer the question. For example, you might respond to a reporter asking you about a lawsuit, “Although we can’t comment on a case in litigation, I would like to remind your viewers that there are two sides to every story. I am confident that the truth will come out, and I’d ask people to withhold judgment until it does.”
Case Study: President Obama on CNN
Back in June 2010, President Obama appeared on CNN’s Larry King Live to discuss immigration reform. He deflected one question by commenting without commenting:
Larry King: “You met with the Arizona governor today. Will the Administration bring a legal challenge to this law?”
President Obama: “I’m not going to comment on that, Larry, because that’s really the job of the Justice Department and I made a commitment early on that I wouldn’t be putting my thumb on the scales [of justice] when these kinds of decisions are made.”
Related: Why Going Off-The-Record Is a Dumb Idea
Related: If You Go Off-The-Record, Don’t Die