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From the Thin Blue Line: "No Comment"

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)

Bruce Mendelsohn

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

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.”

Anger Management

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.


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  • Geiger_max50

    David4946

    over 3 years ago

    1326 Comments

    My spiel is: Ma’am / Sir, I cannot confirm nor deny any accusations against myself or others. Call this number for all inquires."

  • Station_max50

    car54sjpd

    over 3 years ago

    36 Comments

    When out in the field, being a lowly LEO, I always defer the reporter to the PIO or to the OIC and never make a public statement myself, but never say "No Comment". but that is also the departments policy.

  • New_unit_max50

    ChiefDC501

    over 3 years ago

    1898 Comments

    I have found that if you spend a few minutes talking to and more iimoportantly listening to the reporter before going "on camera" you can find out what they already know. Use the information you gleaned from your "casual" conversation with them and give it back to them. If they already have they are going to use it regardless of what you "don't say". If what they have is wrong, make some corrections if you can, if not because of any munber of reasons then you can give a response that will negate the wrong information they were going to use. Such as: There is information out there that ...... happened (the information you got from them), but our investigation is still working hard to sort out what is right and what is incorrect and until the investigation is over it would not be proper to give out partial information which could lead to wrong conclusions. Try it, you will find out the reporters will talk to you. And a side note, get to know the "crew" the camera operators, drivers whoever come with the "star" they can and will tell you a lot of helpful information. And can keep you from looking too "goofy" on TV if they like you.

  • 711022_max50

    Barbrady

    over 3 years ago

    394 Comments

    If approached for comment, I advise the media that I am not qualified to answer any questions, but I can gladly provide my agency's business card and direct them to call our media relations. CYA and stay safe

  • 1393794_10151798561878138_392793313_n_max50

    Blueblood1974

    over 3 years ago

    5204 Comments

    Good article, look for the communication officer Sir!

  • Photo_user_blank_big

    Anonymous

    over 3 years ago

    Amazing article!

  • Vpsomourningband_max50

    DonnaLynn

    over 3 years ago

    10574 Comments

    Great article.

  • Srt_tactical_patch_max50

    iceman4563

    over 6 years ago

    338 Comments

    Redirection? In my language sounds like "management through procrastination." I'm more of a straight on kind of guy but then again I'm not management material. Good information.

  • Img_3413_sq90_max50

    cops1521

    over 6 years ago

    1006 Comments

    Both Departments that I have worked for have the policy that the Officers are NOT to speak with the media. The media knows who the PIOs are and they often call and ask for them. I rarely have been asked but I always refer them to the PIO for the comment. They know that is the policy and usually don't push. If they do, I still just say"I'm sorry you really need to speak wiith..." and give the name of the PIO. That shows them I know who they are to speak with and what they have been told. Of course it may help that I am a non sworn employee! One thing I have been told by a Sgt, when he went through Supervisors school is to remember when the TV News says "off the record" and put their cameras down, the cameraman can still record whatever is said. I treat all press including the print media as if they are recording our conversation and am very careful about what I say.

  • Photo_user_banned_big

    CSL

    over 6 years ago

    596 Comments

    Good reminder

  • Photo_user_banned_big

    ginapau

    over 6 years ago

    264 Comments

    I took community policing in college and have done some ride alongs, and police just get tired of getting in and out of their cars carrying all that gear, but they do it because they have to. Police need more security undercovers involved so that they can make ties into a community. Police reputation is important. Watch what you say and do.

  • Dscn1049_max50

    Rcbaron

    almost 7 years ago

    100 Comments

    what are we talking about? I don't know the answer to that? Talk to the chief... end of story

  • Me_max50

    bsrundback

    almost 7 years ago

    6 Comments

    well written

  • Lauraleefestivalpic_max50

    MommaD47

    almost 7 years ago

    46 Comments

    Even with PIO's and Dept. Chief's you are still apt to get caught by a media rep for a comment and shouldn't take it lightly. Community Policing and Community Relations are everyone's responsibility, so this is an excellent post to give some smart as***es an answer that won't embarrass themselves and everyone else. The position of law enforcement is a professional one and should be approached that way, even if your first response is to tell them off.

  • Photo_user_banned_big

    OfficerGrace

    almost 7 years ago

    252 Comments

    No comment. I say it as a joke when the situation arises. It is funny how it gets people to laugh.

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