Playing with Fire: The Perils of “No Comment” and “Off the Record”
This year might go down as one of the biggest years in terms of successful people saying (and doing) stupid things, making poor PR decisions and getting called onto the mat for them.
Recently, we’ve seen two major flare-ups involving a senior exec from Uber and Bill Cosby. The reasons behind their media furors are shocking in their own rights, but from a purely PR perspective, it’s been interesting to see how the PR/media relationship staples of “no comment” and “off the record” have come into play.
In the case of Uber Senior VP of Business Emil Michael, his troubles began when he said at a dinner where journalists were present that the company should dig up dirt on reporters who were critical of Uber. He later claimed that he thought the comments were “off the record”.
In Bill Cosby’s case, the latest log on his media fire is from an Associated Press interview where he tried to, after the fact, control what he said in the interview and in subsequent interviews, remain silent on the sexual assault allegations against him by frequently saying “no comment”.
Here’s the thing, unless you make a living as a reporter or talking to reporters, eliminate “no comment” and “off the record” from your vocabulary.
Saying “no comment” is worse than not commenting. If you have no comment, simply don’t comment. In times of crisis communications, there are times you don’t want to comment on a particular story, and that’s fine, but there are better ways to say that than the implication of guilt, stupidity, lack of respect or disinterest that the term “no comment” brings to the table.
Some better ways of saying “no comment” include:
– Questions about your competitors? Say, “I’d rather not talk about the competition, but what I can tell you about is…”
– In the case of criminal allegations or investigations or something scandalous, the truth is always a good way to go, but if the interview you’re in isn’t the right time or place, say that.
Those are just two examples, there are hundreds of other ways to get that point across.
In many cases you’re better off reading in an article that you were “unavailable for comment” rather than you actually saying “no comment”.
As for “off the record”, the following dialogue is the only acceptable way “off the record” works, and – I can’t stress this enough – this dialogue has to occur before the “off the record” conversation happens.
YOU: Can we talk off the record?
YOU: Is this off the record?
REPORTER: Yes, this is off the record.
Unless you have that discussion, practically verbatim, it’s on the record. No exceptions.
If you’re talking to a reporter, assume it’s on the record.
Mark Twain once said is “Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel”. While journalists aren’t in the ink-owning business any more, the key to keeping your relationships with reporters non-adversarial is understanding the ground rules and nuances of how accurate information flows.