I can think of no two words in PR that are worse than “no comment.”
You might as well say “guilty as charged,” because that is how that phrase is most often interpreted. The phrase “no comment” is legalistic and should have no place in the PR lexicon.
Yet, just last week, GOP presidential candidate (and former speaker of the House) Newt Gingrich uttered these two incriminatory words in response to questions about his personal finances, which include a reported half-million-dollar debt to Tiffany & Co.
For a man who has been in politics for more than 30 years, he should have known better than to use “no comment.” People use it because it’s what they have seen on TV and the movies; not those who have had PR pros directing their every professional move since 1978.
When dealing with hostile or negative questions, it’s best to remain calm and keep your answers short. So, to help Gingrich (and others), I’ve compiled a list of five phrases better than “no comment”:
1. I don’t have anything to say.
2. That’s not what I’m here to discuss.
3. I’m unable to talk about that.
Use this only if legal counsel has told you not to comment, otherwise you can be pegged a liar, which is just as bad as using “no comment.”
If asked a direct question that is untrue, simply reply “no.” For example, “Newt, isn’t it true that you owe more than a million dollars to Tiffany?” or “Newt, do you want to comment about your Tiffany debt?” Note: when a reporter asks, “Do you have a comment?” he is often baiting a person into saying “no comment.”
5. Smile, and say nothing.
Though not a phrase, this is always the best option. Remember, journalists cannot repeat what you do not say.
Jocelyn Broder is vice president at Robin Tracy Public Relations. A version of this story first appeared on the blog Journalistics.