Does Being a Spokesperson Require You To…Speak?

The New York Times published a profile piece this week about Laurie Goldberg, the head spokesperson for the cable channel TLC.

The story, titled “In Speaking For TLC, The Least Said Is Best,” highlighted Ms. Goldberg’s reluctance to speak on the record with reporters. Regarding a controversy over the TLC show “All-American Muslim,” for example, writer Brian Stelter reports:

“Ms. Goldberg said almost nothing on the record about the controversy, lest she spur more coverage. But behind the scenes she was trying to influence reporters’ views of the mostly imaginary boycott.”

Laurie Goldberg, top spokesperson for TLC

Typically, a spokesperson who refuses to comment is punished by the press. But Stelter concludes:

“Despite all its controversial shows, TLC’s brand has remained mostly unblemished these last few years. That may be in part because while Ms. Goldberg is genial and helpful with reporters off the record, she routinely doles out no-comments to them on the record, thereby refusing to make big stories bigger. She declined to be interviewed on the record for this story.”

My first reaction was to reading about Ms. Goldberg’s approach was to give her the benefit of the doubt. After all, it’s hard to argue with success, and if her tactics are working, who am I to criticize her unconventional approach?

But the more I considered her strategy, the more it bothered me: Doesn’t being a spokesperson mean that you should be willing to speak, on the record, to reporters?

TLC’s refusal to speak on the record likely leads to reporters writing, “A spokesperson for TLC refused to comment.” That line is often dangerous, since it leads readers to conclude that the channel’s critics must be right. (If they weren’t, wouldn’t TLC refute the charges?)

This TLC program created a major controversy, but drew little comment from the network

I have a tough time understanding why Ms. Goldberg’s “no comment” is better than my approach of commenting without commenting. It’s almost always better to say something, anything, to avoid a reporter writing that you refused to comment. A bland quote that says little is better than no quote, which says a lot.

One final point: By using such an unusually aggressive strategy, Ms. Goldberg made herself – and her shop – the story. Funny, isn’t it? Her approach, designed to prevent making “big stories bigger,” landed her a profile piece in the New York Times.

What do you think? Is Ms. Goldberg’s approach effective? Do you think it’s an acceptable P.R. practice?