Wednesday, July 9, 2008

When a sense of humor is better than saying "No comment."

I'd like to make a comment about "No comment."

For communications professionals, these two magic words are the catch-all for saying to the press that they or their client have nothing to say to a reporter. In many instances, it is probably the only thing that can be said to a reporter, such as any query involving a potential or current lawsuit, or perhaps the time is too early for being quoted on the record for a very important deal or announcement.

There are a lot of people who don't wish to comment out there, judging by merely typing in "no comment" into Google News. Today, there were over 10,000 instances of "no comment."

There are two sides to "no comment." The beauty of it is that there is no lying involved, no words that can come back to haunt you. It functions as a place holder that the reporter may go back to or not. On the other hand, "no comment" can imply guilt and hiding, so in the court of public perception, it may raise eyebrows. It's also a license for a reporter to write or say whatever they want, allowing them to stack the deck in the other guy's favor.

In his book "Spin" (which I can't help referring to because it's so good), crisis manager Michael Sitrick strongly advocates to "always respond -- and respond fully -- to a press inquiry, no matter how off-base. Merely saying, 'No, that's not true' isn't sufficient. You've got to do two things. First, you've got to find out what the reporter's mistaken impression is based on. Then, using that knowledge, you've got to refute it, point by point."

Great advice when the reporter is about to do a slam job, because this is the essence of reputation management.

But what about when the situation is trivial or silly, where a reporter is about to make a tempest in a teapot over something truly superficial? It happens all the time with tabloids and blogs, because sometimes the most insignificant incidents can be magnified into a five or six paragraph story or post.

To this, I say like Sitrick, always respond, but do it with a sense of humor. I just don't see enough PR spokespeople who know when to apply a clever retort to a silly query at the right time. Especially in the celebrity world, where having a sense of humor about the nuttiness of the requests and accusations would be required. It's much easier for any spokesperson to go on autopilot and say "No comment."

I'm not saying that every press response merits a joke or even most of them. You have to suss out the seriousness and nature of the query, because treating a request the wrong way will surely backfire. It's got to be a smart judgment call of just who is asking, where it will appear, and the levity of the situation. Then once you've decided to go this route, it has to be an as-close-to-100% bulletproof reply as there can be, where everybody will get the joke and nobody gets offended.

Sometimes the more ridiculous a query, the more ridiculous a response is warranted. Why? In England, they call it "taking the piss" out of something. I like to say it's taking the air out of the balloon. It subtly signals to the reporter a few things: 1) you've got a sense of humor about the whole inane thing, 2) you're treating it with it proper due, and 3) you're not giving them the same old convenient "no comment." In an unspoken way, you are both in on "the joke." You are also telegraphing to the readers, "This is silly and you know it too, so let's have a laugh and move on."

For example, let's turn to an item in today's Page Six, where a Yankee stadium worker tipped them off that team radio announcer John Sterling for making "a habit of walking over to the dessert table" at the press dessert table "and dipping his finger into the ice cream barrel." The worker adds that Sterling "used the same tablespoon to repeatedly take samples."

Of course, the CBS rep "declined to comment" and the Yankees spokesperson said the team knows "nothing about it."

Something this mad needs an equally mad response. It's the perfect scenario for this tactic because it's just so petty and silly that you just can't treat it seriously. When I read the item, I thought my "spokesperson" response would have been along the lines of "Mr. Sterling knows that the First Law of Seinfeld is to never double dip."

I employed this technique a couple of months ago when my client Felix Dennis, in a highly inebriated state over dinner in the UK, blurted out to a journalist that he had killed a man 20 years ago pushing him off a cliff. The British tabloids ran crazy with this for a couple of weeks and it eventually seeped into a few American media locations. When the NY Post wanted a comment from me, asking if Felix Dennis had really killed a man, I sat down, wrote a few drafts of an appropriate response and told them this:

"Felix has killed many people with his jokes and he has certainly killed a few magazines along the way—his own and others—but as for human beings, that's ridiculous."

The day the quote appeared, I received a number of complimentary phone calls and e-mails, and even the NY Observer tipped their hat in their Media Mob blog.

Reporters all know who gives "good quote." There's nothing wrong with the spokesperson having that honor in the right circumstances.

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