|On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney|
|"No comment" is never an appropriate response.|
|© 2011; 2016; 2018 Michael Turney||Table of contents||Practicing Public Relations
|About the author|
On Deadline: Managing Media Relations, the highly respected guide to media relations written by Carole Howard and Wilma Mathews, cautions everyone who will ever have to talk to a reporter "not to confuse `No comment' with saying `No, I can't answer that question because ..."
The latter is an open-ended and thoughtful response. While it may not provide the kind of information they were hoping to get, it respectfully acknowledges the questioner and the question. It also suggests the possibility of further dialogue and may help build a future relationship. You just can't say any more right now.
In contrast, "No comment" is a dead end. It shuts off any further discussion and is likely to create a serious roadblock for any on-going relationship. According to Howard and Mathews, "It's a phrase that should be purged from every public relations practitioner's vocabulary."
Does saying "No comment." really affect public perception?
If you don't think so, watch the Oscar-nominated documentary Food, Inc.
The New York Times called it "one of the scariest movies of the year" when it opened in Manhattan in June 2009, but that's not the reason you should watch it now. Watch it for its un-stated lesson about the dangers of not quickly and fully responding to media inquiries.
Food, Inc.has been widely praised by those concerned about "junk food" and nutrition.
According to www.foodincmovie.com, the film's official website: "Food, Inc., filmmaker Robert Kenner lifts the veil on our nation's food industry, exposing the highly mechanized underbelly that has been hidden from the American consumer... Our nation's food supply is now controlled by a handful of corporations that often put profit ahead of consumer health, the livelihood of the American farmer, the safety of workers, and our own environment."
Food, Inc. is based on two best-selling books, Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser and The Omnivore's Dilemma, In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan. It was released in 2009 after premiering at several film festivals and is available on DVD from several sources including Netflix. There are also several excerpts from the film posted on YouTube, but these clips really don't show enough to address the issue of "No comment."
It definitely has a strong point of view and doesn't hold back in expressing it. The same New York Times review that called it scary described it as "an informative, often infuriating activist documentary about the big business of feeding or, more to the political point, force-feeding, Americans all the junk that multinational corporate money can buy."
- It is highly critical of the giant conglomerates that now dominate American agri-business, and companies such as Cargill, Monsanto, Smithfield Foods, Tyson, and others clearly come across as bad guys.
- Surprisingly, Wal-Mart, a company many anti-corporate activists see as an evil empire, is portrayed quite favorably and comes out looking like a good guy.
How much of Food, Inc. you believe, and whether you agree with it or not, are questions for another time and place. They really aren't relevant to this discussion and should be debated with someone more knowledgeable about farming, food, and economics rather than public relations.
See how failing to respond fuels the public's perception of guilty.
This film presents a wonderful opportunity to compare the negative effects of saying "No comment." or refusing to participate in a discussion with the more favorable impacts of responding in a clear, reasonable manner. It's a comparison that's possible because the film-makers asked several major agri-business corporations and other interested parties for interviews and offered them a chance to tell their sides of the story in the film.
- Cargill, Monsanto, Smithfield Foods, and Tyson were among those who declined the interviews and refused to allow filming in any location they controlled. So, whenever the policies or actions of one of these companies is discussed in the film, a message citing the company's name and its refusal to provide information appears on the screen.
- Wal-Mart, on the other hand, responded. It provided two spokespersons, both of whom look like "average-Joes" and come across as comfortable, competent, and at home whether they're standing in the mud and manure of a farm yard or in the aisle of a local Wal-Mart. They answered the questions put to them and explained Wal-Mart's positions clearly and in straight-forward, easy to understand terms.
The contrast is like the difference between night and day. By the time the film was over, I was personally furious at the arrogance, callousness, and lack of openness shown by the companies that refused to participate in the discussion and deeply impressed by Wal-Mart's responsiveness. And, from a public relations and media relations standpoint, I applauded Wal-Mart's wisdom in cooperating.
This film more clearly demonstrates in a way that you can really feel the differing impact of these totally opposite responses to media questioning than anything I've seen in 30 years of working in and teaching public relations. It does it much better than dozens of other documentaries and investigative reports and also surpasses scores of books and articles about media relations.
Other sources describe the danger of "No comment;" Food, Inc. actually shows that danger.
Plenty of textbooks and public relations articles will tell practitioners to never, ever, say "No comment." to a reporter. They'll also warn them not to ignore a reporter's inquiry or fail to return a phone call or reply to an e-mail.
Some will even explain why it's important to not do these things. On Deadline: Managing Media Relations, for instance, says:"Few words create such frustration to a reporter as `No comment...' The problem seems to rest in the connotation the phrase `No comment' has... Reporters and the general public have assumed ... `No comment' really means `I am guilty as hell but I won't admit it.'"
But, until seeing this film, I had never seen such an effective demonstration of how refusing to face an interviewer and not answering questions or not explaining business practices could make an otherwise respectable and highly-regarded organization look like a guilty scumbag while another organization came out looking golden simply because it answered questions.
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5 August 2018