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How NOT to say "No Comment"

There was an essential media relations lesson to be learned from a recent Wall Street Journal story about the subprime mess: the right and wrong ways to say "no comment."

Once upon a time, saying "no comment" when you wanted to decline an interview was a benign statement. Now, the phrase has become loaded with meaning, mostly suggesting that you are hiding something rather than coming clean.

Yet it's every interviewee's right to decline to be interviewed â€" after all, interviews are voluntary. So what's the right way to do it?

In a nutshell, here's my advice:

  • Don't use the phrase itself.
  • Develop and practice a few different stock phrases that stand in for "no comment" such as: "I'm sorry, but that information is confidential/proprietary." or I'm sorry, but I'm not able to answer that question at this time." or "I'd like to help you but unfortunately I can't."
  • Once you've answered, stand your ground.
What all of the above phrases have in common is that they are plausible and credible. In the following example, their substitute for "no comment" failed to live up to those standards, and you'll see what can happen.

In the Journal story, they looked at the intertwined relationships of players in the mortgage business, tracing the story from the misfortunes of a single homeowner up to giant multinational financial institutions that invested in mortgage-backed securities, including securities whose returns were dependent on the homeowner continuing to pay his mortgage.

One of the investors was James C. Kelsoe Jr., a senior portfolio manager at the asset-management unit of Morgan Keegan & Co., a Memphis, Tenn., investment firm and unit of Regions Financial Corp. When the mortgage market was riding high, so was Kelsoe's fund. But after the crash, his returns suffered. As part of the story, the Journal sought comment from Kelsoe. Here's what they got:

A Morgan Keegan spokeswoman said Mr. Kelsoe wasn't available to comment because he was focused on managing his funds.
Really? Every moment of the day? 24/7? Of course not. This was just a way to duck the interview, to say "no comment" without saying "no comment."

When you use an implausible dodge like the one above, the journalist will usually find a way to embarrass you. And the Journal did, a few grafs later:

In a letter to a Memphis newspaper, Charles Reaves, an attorney who had invested in one of Mr. Kelsoe's funds, wrote that Mr. Kelsoe was "hiding under his desk" and "should have the fortitude to face the public and explain--what he intends to do."
Bottom line: don't hide, and don't use implausible dodges. But if you don't want to talk, just say so and hold your ground. That's your right.