|On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney|
|"No comment" is never appropriate in public relations.|
|© 2011 Michael Turney||Table of contents||Practicing Public Relations main page||About the author|
On Deadline: Managing Media Relations, a highly respected guide to media relations written by Carole Howard and Wilma Mathews, cautions that those who work in media relations should "not confuse `No comment' with `No, I can't answer that question because ..."
The latter is an open-ended and thoughtful response that acknowledges the questioner and his/her question. It also suggests the possibility of further dialogue and can contribute to building a relationship. In contrast, the first response is an abrupt dead end that shuts down any further discussion and is likely to create a roadblock in any relationship. It's phrase that should be purged from every public relations practitioner's vocabulary.
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 why you should watch it. Watch it for its unstated lesson about the dangers of not responding to media inquiries.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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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