Preserving Media Relationships: How to Comment Without Saying “No Comment”

In the age of social media and fast trending hashtags, navigating the relationship between the media and the client is more important than ever. Based on his experience, Executive Counsel Terry Hemeyer believes that when dealing with the media, one should be truthful, giving as many facts as possible while still protecting a client’s reputation.

PR crisis situations are often fast-moving and leave little time for deliberation. In many cases, clients can be caught off guard when asked a question they may not be ready to answer, because they don’t have all the facts yet. A reporter’s job is to obtain accurate and timely information. Although the phrase “no comment” may seem harmless enough, it often results in the opposite effect – admission of guilt.

“There are many situations in which it would be improper to respond to the media without facts,” says Hemeyer. “However, you have to be able to talk to the media in both good and bad times to maintain a relationship with them.” In other words, there are ways to provide information without saying no.

In the case of a client being caught off guard by a reporter’s fast-hitting questions, a good alternative would be a follow-up response. “We are investigating and when we get all the facts you will be the first one we call,” is a good alternative to “no comment” says Hemeyer. This response not only allows the client the opportunity to give the media something, no matter how incomplete, but also allows them the chance to gather their information and follow up with a more thorough and accurate answer later. Remember to always follow up with the reporters afterward, however. Nothing destroys a media relationship more than false promises or inaccurate information.

There are also many situations that involve a more detailed discussion. An acceptable alternative to “no comment” is to say, “we are not the appropriate people to talk about this, but we will get someone who is.”

One thing Hemeyer advises is to always get the name of the reporter and their contact information. “A client has a need to protect themselves as well, and unfortunately a competitor or third party might be attempting to solicit information. In this case, accurate contact information is vital. This allows a PR representative to verify who exactly is asking these questions, and more importantly, call them in a timely manner about their inquiry.

Although the client should always make sure the information they are providing is correct, occasionally something winds up in print that does not give the right information. In this case, it is the duty of the client or PR representative to contact the journalist or publication to clarify the information.

Additionally, any financial or private company information should also be protected, and it is entirely within a client’s best interest to tell a reporter that certain information is “proprietary and offering that information could help a competitor or violate disclosure rules.”

Rumors are a situation that can sometimes warrant a “non-response” remark, however. By confirming or speaking on a rumor, it can sometimes set a precedent for the future. Reporters can come to expect a client to confirm or deny rumors if they have in the past. “We don’t comment on rumors” is a good policy to have. In the situation that a reporter asks a client to comment on a competitor’s rumor, it is best to take a non-reactive approach and announce your policy to not comment on a competitor’s situation.

Finally, unfortunate situations do occur. Product recalls can happen. It never helps a relationship to be untruthful. In such cases, admitting fault while fixing the problem helps reminds consumers that this product is quality. Your customers want answers, and to have their concerns heard. It is best to take a stance of honesty and humility and understand what went wrong before offering a statement.

It is important to cultivate a positive and productive relationship with the media. It can help prevent you from being known as a gatekeeper and foster important communication. In the event of a quick-brewing social media crisis, it can even help mitigate a situation. By prepping clients beforehand on best ways to respond to certain questions, you can protect not only your clients but also your professional reputation. Hemeyer suggests that preparation is one of your best tools to developing positive media relationships.

With over 40 years’ experience in communications, Terry Hemeyer is the Executive Counsel to Pierpont Communications and Associate Professor at UT. He has successfully managed projects concerning crisis management, advertising, branding, media relations, and government communications. His expertise has been so valued that he has gone on to advise two U.S. presidents on communication strategies and appear on CBS 60 Minutes, interviewed for CNN and Fox News, and has appeared in The New York Times.

The insights shared in this post were collected from an interview with Terry Hemeyer and authored by former Pierpont Intern Alex Miller.

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