Can You Minimize Or Kill A News Story?

After finishing a recent media training workshop, one of the attendees approached to ask me a question.

“I know that you usually advise spokespeople to agree to interviews when their company or organization will be mentioned in the story,” he said. “But what about those times when you want to minimize your presence in the story? Aren’t there times you can decrease your presence in the story by refusing to participate?”

The answer is yes. But the risks of employing that approach can be quite high, and decisions to do so should only be made by seasoned pros who can accurately assess them. Either way, use these methods in unusual or extreme circumstances only. These are aggressive techniques that do little to build positive and long-term relationships with the press.

No Comment

Here are four ways in which you might be able to minimize or kill a story:

1. Respond by Email: A short email statement prevents reporters from being able to say you had “no comment,” but also prevents them from asking follow-up questions that could get you into trouble. 

2. Be Boring: Typically, we recommend that media spokespersons help their quotes stand out by using action-oriented and evocative language. (Read “10 Ways to Create Memorable Sound Bites.”) But the opposite is also true; if you don’t want to stand out, using boring and process-oriented language is a good way to do it. For example, if you’re asked about one of your nonprofit organization’s donors—a man who was just arrested for tax evasion—you might just say, “It’s an unfortunate situation for all parties involved.”

3. Let Someone Else Take The Heat: Let’s say there will be a negative story about a project you and two other corporate partners are involved in. If you get wind that one of the other partners has agreed to speak to the reporter (and yes, that happens), it may take some of the pressure off of you to speak. In some situations, you may be able to let the other company do the only full interview—and take most of the heat—while you offer only a short written statement instead.

4. Don’t Participate: There are some cases in which a reporter cannot write a story without your corroboration. They may have gotten a tip from someone about something related to your company or your work—but if you’re the only people who know certain information, the reporter may not be able to write the story unless you confirm it for them. Obviously, this is extremely risky. Reporters may file the story mentioning the allegation while stating that you refused to comment. Or they may be successful in finding a disgruntled employee who agrees to speak on background. Or they may have more information then they’re telling you, allowing them to file the story without your participation. With all of those risks, you may wonder why I’m including this option here at all. The reason? I know several professional communicators who have used this strategy successfully.

Have you ever successfully minimized your presence in a news story—or killed it altogether? What strategies did you use to do it? Please share your stories in the comments section below.