From the Thin Blue Line: "No Comment"
FPS Regional Director Ronald D. Libby conducts an interview updating the media on security measures in place for the Democratic National Convention. (Photo: DHS/ICE)
In the last column you read about The Insight: Nine simple words, governing every interaction we in law enforcement must have with the media specifically – and with the public in general: Tell the Truth. Tell it Early. Tell it Often. In this month’s “From the Thin Blue Line: Lessons for PIOs and Law Enforcement Leaders,” you’ll discover two simple words that can ruin years of goodwill with the media and the public. These two words are the sworn enemy of The Insight: Where the latter encourages you to be transparent and open, the former closes you off and makes it seem like you’re hiding something – even when you’re not.
To those of us in the PIO field, these two words absolutely make us cringe. Because when you say “no comment,” you open the floodgates for a voracious, 24-7 media that – when they learn the story about which you have “no comment” (and believe me, they will find out) – will devour you and your agency.
Formally, “no comment” is a phrase people use to respond to journalistic inquiries which they don’t want to answer. Public figures often use “no comment” to decline speaking on issues about which they are questioned if they wish to avoid having a stated opinion about the matter on the record, or if they simply have nothing to say about the issue at the time (but when have we known a public figure not to have an opinion on anything?!).
Informally, “no comment” sounds insidious, like you’re hiding something. The public perceives “no comment” negatively. So if you have nothing to say, it’s better simply to redirect a reporter’s question or even to not return a reporter’s call than it is to say “no comment.” No comment opens the door to speculation.
I believe that the two most dangerous words you can ever tell a reporter are “no comment.” Say them, and you might as well scream, “We’re guilty!”
Because “no comment” is the media equivalent of surrendering. When you say it, you relinquish all power over communicating the story. “No comment” invites reporters to talk to other people who won’t be quite as hesitant about putting their “spin” on your issue. Plus – and this is extremely important for all law enforcement officials – saying “no comment” makes you look weak.
Here are a few techniques you can use to respond when a reporter asks a tough, angry or hostile question that you clearly cannot answer or that you don’t want to answer.
Redirection is useful because – when skillfully applied – it allows you to convey your main messages in responding to a question you can’t or don’t want to answer. By using one of the phrases below, you “redirect” from the reporter’s question to your message:
Question: “Why did you wait so long to arrest the suspect?”
Redirect 1: “I think that would be clearer if I first explained a little about the process we use to gather evidence. As you know, there are strict laws concerning your rights as citizens…” Some reporters, particularly those with little experience, might forget about the original question they asked you.
Redirect 2: “Departmental policy prohibits me from divulging the tactics and techniques our officers use to investigate suspects. But I can tell you that…” Continue with your key point.
Redirect 3: “I agree we waited a long time to arrest the suspect, and I’d like to share with you our solution.” Then state your key point.
Redirect 4: “We have our share of challenges, just like everyone else, but it’s important to remember that…” Then state your key point.
Redirect 5: “I’m glad you asked that question (that’s a classic PR stall, by the way), and it relates to a more important concern…”
Use any of these redirects to both communicate your key points and avoid saying “no comment.”
Because they don’t understand the media – and they’re used to people answering their questions, not responding to questions (“I’ll ask the questions here…”), many law enforcement officials bristle when a reporter asks a tough, angry, or hostile question. Reporters will deliberately ask you these questions because they know adopting a hostile tone will incite you to anger… and anger makes for good press.
Don’t take the bait. Use some of the following ways to manage your anger and stay on message:
“I wouldn’t use that choice of words. If you are asking whether (rephrase the question), I can tell you that…”
“Your question points out a common misconception we hear all the time. The real problem is…” Then restate the problem as you see it.
“That question is insulting, and I’m not going to answer it. Next question.” (I really like that one, although you do risk making that reporter an enemy).
Questions from Left Field
When the reporter’s question has nothing to do with your organization, here’s a good response: “What you are asking about has nothing to do with our department/investigation/agency. But we’re glad to help you with your story. Have you thought about calling…” Then give the reporter the name of someone who you think can help. This is a really good way of getting a reporter off your back – and building a relationship with them at the same time!
It really surprises me how many law enforcement officials tell a reporter “no comment” when what they really mean is “I don’t know.” Think about it. When was the last time you saw a reporter quote someone saying “I don’t know”? Like, uh, NEVER! That’s because it’s a boring quote.
There’s nothing wrong with telling reporters you don’t know the answer to a question, or that you need time to track down the information they need. Ask them their deadline, find out the answer, and promptly return their call.
Every interaction you have with the media is an opportunity for you to communicate your value to the public. The media won’t settle for “no comment” and neither should you.