English's 'no comment' on Comey a lesson for spokespeople

Posted May 10, 2017

Anyone who has attended one of my media training workshops will know that I usually recommend that people accept interview requests from journalists. But there are exceptions.

A media interview is usually an opportunity rather than a threat, even if it’s about a negative issue. That’s assuming the interviewee understands the differences between media interviews and other conversations.

How does this relate to Bill English?

Yesterday the Prime Minister was asked what he thought about Donald Trump’s sacking of FBI Director James Comey. The response was, “That’s a matter for President Trump.”

This was clearly one of those situations where he rightly didn’t want to get involved because any answer would have got him into trouble. But notice how he didn’t say the words, “No comment.” That’s what most people say when they don’t want to answer media questions, but research shows that most people think people who say that either have something to hide or are guilty of something.

There are so many ways of refusing to comment without using those dreaded two words. English gave the perfect response. Not only did he make it clear he wouldn’t comment, but he gave the reason why.

This is something lots of people don’t do. They say they won’t comment, but don’t say why. Let’s take a few examples. If something’s before the courts and you can’t comment, don’t say, ‘no comment’, say something like, “I’d be happy to talk but because this is before the courts, I’m unable to.” That’s genuine and both the reporter and his or her audience would be quite satisfied.

Often spokespeople are asked to name people who may have been involved in some event like an accident. When they refuse, they say something like, “I’m not prepared to name anyone.” That can sound dishonest. What they should say is something like, “They’re all going through a tough time at the moment, so out of respect for their privacy, I’d rather not name them.”

That second answer would again satisfy everyone, but the first could irritate the reporter and imply something is being held back for no reason.

As always, it’s best to cooperate as much as possible with media. But when it’s clearly not appropriate and you have a good reason, say why. It’s important for your credibility.

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