But one thing you won't find in the textbooks are the oft-used go-to phrases that public relations professionals lean on when a reporter calls or e-mails looking for comment. These phrases and responses are written in stone and probably go back to the Paleolithic Era, when some caveman had to explain to the rest of his tribe what the large mysterious black monolith was that just appeared outside their home on the rocks.
At one time, these phrases may have carried a lot of weight in the press, but now they seem as fresh as doing "the wave" in a baseball stadium. Yet, they are still used often to make (or not make) a point. Somebody crafted these words carefully to avoid misinterpretation or perhaps really saying anything at all, so I would not be surprised if a lawyer was somehow involved in their creation.
Perhaps it is high time to retire some of these phrases, since they are used verbatim over and over again. You would think the same spokesperson wrote everybody's script that they kept in front of them. And with that retirement should come new phrases to replace them, just to keep the media intrigued and on their toes.
Here are the eight deadly phrases, and possible new replies that the able-bodied publicist can add to their bag of magic media relations tricks. Beware, as all of them have high annoyance factors and may cause journalists to despise the profession even more.
- "No comment": I have to start with the most common one, which I wrote about at length previously. An all-purpose "I have nothing I want to say" pair of words that truly has nothing to add or subtract to the conversation, will not admit guilt or innocence, and is basically a placeholder until one hopes the reporter goes away or there's something more clever to say. Despite best intentions, it usually implies you're hiding something, whether you mean it that way or not.
- "He/she is leaving to spend more time with their family" or "He/she is departing to pursue other interests": When a company takes the high road and doesn't want to get their fingers dirty in whatever mess has been dwelling internally, these are the old stand-bys lines when somebody is leaving and they just don't want to talk about it. Employment can be a litigious minefield, so the less said, the better. There's an ironic humor to these particular phrases because let's face it, if they are now unemployed, they probably are spending more time with their family or working on their tennis or golf game. However, when you read these lines, you just don't buy it, though. They've been stated millions of times as part of statements and press releases, and by that very overuse, you know there's more to the story. So let's just drop the pretense!
- The lawsuit... "has no merit"/"is frivolous"/"is an abuse of process": In this great litigious land, there are two sides to every argument, and the one on the suit receiving end basically wants everybody to know this matter is a lot of BS. You can bet the defense will come up with one of these handy phrases to explain what a waste of time and money the suit is. It's usually followed by something along the lines of "The truth will be proven in court" or some other virtuous statement. I'm always expecting the plaintiff's attorney to say something like, "Well, you'll see who has merit, bud."
- "We don't comment on stories based on rumors and speculation" or "We don't comment on speculation and rumor": Well, what do you comment on? In a shaky economy of takeovers and plugs being pulled, surrounded by lots of blogs, speculation and rumor are practically a commodity. And everybody knows that if you read it on a blog, then there must be a kernel of truth to it, right? Who does not want to know who is in trouble, who is on their way out, who is being acquired and who is doing the acquiring?
- "They're on vacation and can't comment at this time": Very similar to the first classic phrase but with a twist. It's not like the CEO doesn't want to speak with you... they're on vacation, so they're unavailable to communicate! I wish I could give you a comment, but, dang, the CEO's just not around so I'm just plain out of luck! Of course, Carl Icahn may have just announced a hostile takeover of your board, at the same time the CEO decided to go skeet shooting in Pennsylvania. Let's face it, the CEO gave you orders -- "You are never to interrupt me while I am on vacation or I'll have your head! And don't say anything to anybody until I get back! Not even traffic directions!"
- "They have ended their romance, but remain friends": Celebrities break up just like you and me, except they often have spokespeople announce it for them. It's an admirable ploy since publicists want to make their clients seem like civil mature adults like that famous trio Bruce Willis, Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher. However, life is usually not this tidy. Wouldn't you love the publicist to actually say what the rest of the mere mortals do when they break up: "They ended their romance, so now he's a total wreck, drinking heavily, and writing some new song lyrics about how badly it all ended. You can read about it on his blog."
- "They ask everybody to respect their privacy at this difficult time": The newest phrase on the list, a result of scandal, divorce, and embarrassment becoming the soup du jour with the advent of blogs, TMZ and investigative reporting, it is essentially a plea to "back off, bud." Employed by actors (i.e. Christian Bale for allegedly slugging his mother and sister in a London hotel) to politicians (i.e. former Republican candidate Rudy Giuliani's estrangement from the rest of his family), the statement implies that somehow any further reporting on the story is an infringement on privacy. Now when did that ever stop anybody? Just for the record, Lindsay Lohan's publicist asked that people "please respect my privacy at this time" after the actress checked into rehab in January 2007. I guess the statute of limitations on privacy respect ended pretty shortly after that.
- "We have not seen the lawsuit": The ultimate time killer when "no comment" will not do. When a lawsuit is filed, somehow it seems to take long, long time for the defendant's attorneys to actually lay eyes on it. That suit could be on the bottom of a towering pile of papers or they are at a McDonald's for lunch all the way across town from where the lawsuit is filed. Ever wonder why nobody in the legal profession has ever publicly stated how long it takes to get possession of a lawsuit? Or how long it takes to read it? While a great device to provide a little time while you figure out something better to say, the distinct disadvantage is that the plaintiff's lawyer has already piled on the sordid details of the case to the press, with juicy quotes and making you look like dirt.
* A special thanks to my wife Valerie and friend Nora for suggesting a couple of these prizewinners.