When it comes to crisis management, choose your words wisely
One of the most common requests from clients of ours are for ways to “say no comment without saying no comment.” Yes, communication and transparency are crucial in today’s business environment, but sometimes it’s just not in your best interest to discuss a particular topic. That’s why Stephen Rafe’s take on the situation caught our eye, and drove us to ask if we could bring his tactics to our readers.
Without further ado, here is a quote from Stephen Rafe’s forthcoming book on news-media interviewing:
Saying the same thing in different words doesn’t help. Following President Clinton’s news conference in May, Susan Page (USA Today, Friday, May 1, 1998) described his “no-comment” efforts as “a convoluted game of TV’s ‘Jeopardy’ in which the questions and answers somehow had been drawn from completely different categories.” Arianna Huffington, (The New York Post, May 5, 1998,) wrote: “…my personal advice is that he (President Clinton) advise his lawyers to advise him not to hold any more press conferences until all his legal entanglements are disentangled….”
Indeed, the President did come up with some creative ways to avoid saying “no-comment.” Here are some of the 15 he used — to the total of 29 questions he was asked:
- “I don’t have anything to say about that.”
- “I can not comment on these matters because they are under seal.”
- “I … have nothing to add to my former answer.”
- “I have been advised, and I think it’s good advice under the circumstances — but I just — I just don’t have anything else to add about that.”
The lesson learned for spokespersons? Elegant variations can not replace good technique.
Techniques that Work
So how should one respond to questions when tempted to give a “no-comment” answer? Here’s the approach I’ve refined to help my clients address such situations.
First, always express a desire to cooperate, and follow with a reason why you can’t respond directly to the question. You might open by saying: “I wish I could comment on that (or “help you,” or “share that information with you,” or something similar and relevant), (use reporter’s name).”
Next, if timing is your concern, continue by saying something such as: “However, once (name the event that controls timing) is no longer at issue (or “has been resolved”) I would be pleased to discuss this in detail with you.”
If the issue is your concern, substitute words such as these instead: “However, doing so would give proprietary information to our competitors.”
Follow with a point or fact that is relevant and “safe,” such as: “What I can tell you is that the (name of trade association) has said (and complete your response with related, but generic information from that source).”
Structure your response this way and you decrease the chances that you will “loop” back to the question you were trying to dismiss. Looping frequently occurs when spokespersons try to ad lib. When you use this technique, you also increase the likelihood that the reporter will move on to the next question.
For more resources, see the Free Management Library topic: Crisis Management