“Never say ‘no comment’ when talking to reporters.” When I started my career I heard this mantra from every school PR professional I met. The first thing to understand is that no one is ever tempted to say, “No comment,” when asked why their school system has a large reserve fund, how the superintendent snagged a lucrative private grant, or how 20 percent of the senior class aced the SAT (highly unlikely unless by cheating). In truth, I never had to answer questions like these. The Superintendent fielded the good ones. Spokespeople hope for laryngitis — the only legitimate substitute for “no comment” — when a police sting leads to massive arrests on campus, someone accuses a volunteer of selling weed to staff, or a cafeteria worker is caught with her hands in the cookie jar.
Despite the counsel to say something, anything but “no comment,” some spokespeople still find themselves speechless. Maybe that’s not all bad. Take the report in today’s Seattle Times (“Report: U.S. pays out millions to dead people”) that “The U.S. government pays out millions of dollars to dead people each year, including deceased, retired federal workers…” The good news is that the son who collected his departed father’s check for 37 years has now died and the federally-hosted party for one family has finally ended. The guilty agency is the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). According to the article, “An OPM spokesman had no comment.” Think about it. A government official called their attention to the same problem in 2005 and 2008. What could the spokesman say to convince an audience that the agency had the situation nearly under control: “Trust me, this will never happen again?” “No one told us that ‘the deceased’ were not a protected class?” “We didn’t want to cause upset with a phone call asking who among the family members were still alive and who were still dead?”
This brings me to the subject of comments vs. no comments in my new life, the world of blogging. A friend and I, both recovering school district spokeswomen, have long discussions over how to attract new traffic to our blogs (outrageous headlines and how-to-lose weight posts work best), and how to encourage readers to comment. We laugh about different situations on the job when all we wanted was to say “no comment” but couldn’t, and had to struggle to find the words we could use on camera. But now, instead of avoiding comments we are making them and seeking them. Funny how things turn out. Please be assured that whatever solution we come up with to generate more comments, we will not pad our numbers with responses from the dearly departed.
Perhaps the desire to no-comment the inquiries back in the day and the more forthcoming blogorrhea of today has to do with the former obligation to defend/cover/spin other people’s missteps and crimes, whereas today one speaks for herself. You are ready to take responsibility for any of your remarks, while in the past you had to speak for those who maybe were not doing so.
Another possibility is that some PR people confuse their responsibility to ensure true and accurate information with a responsibility to spin a story so their institution looks good.
A PR person who gets caught up in the spin business destroys his or her own credibility. Besides “no comment” is a red flag for a reporter.