One of the hardest parts of the job for media spokespeople and their communications gatekeepers is being unable to respond to a request or question from a journalist.
The reasons for declining may be authentic and varied but this is a time when you risk relationships which are valuable and may have been built over a long period.
Whatever the reason
- inappropriate timing at a strategic level
- unwillingly or unsuitable spokespeople
Avoiding a question or declining to reply has the potential to damage your relationship with a journalist, or to cause that person to hold a negative attitude towards you – but it doesn’t have to.
Most journalists, even those who are most persistent and even abrasive in seeking answers, understand that your role is to control the flow of information to media as well as to facilitate it. They know there are times when you must decline to answer.
The manner in which you decline will have an impact both on the journalist’s approach to the story he is seeking and to his future attitude to you and your company.
In trying to minimise the potential repercussions:
- don’t waste the journalist’s time: only make undertakings you expect to deliver on
- be as open as circumstances allow
- reinforce that you like to help – it’s just that this time you can’t
- suggest alternative lines of inquiry if appropriate
- offer a better story – but only if you have one
“Let me get back to you on that”
Promising to get back to a journalist allows you to elicit further information about what they are seeking, why they’re seeking it, and what their deadlines are. It buys time to formulate a response – or a non-response. But when you say “let me get back to you”, only make undertakings you can deliver on.
If you know the odds are that you will be ringing the journalist back to tell him you can’t answer his questions, don’t leave him with the impression you’ll be dishing up an interview with the CEO later that day. Give at least an indication of what to expect – for example, say you’re not certain you’ll be able to find someone to talk but you’ll see what you can do.
Undertake to get back to the journalist within an agreed time, and do so, even if only to apologise for having failed to produce the answers he wants. Do not waste his time or raise his ire by leaving him to call you repeatedly, or by deliberately delaying calling back until the deadline is past. By always ringing back when you say you will, you build trust.
“I can’t answer that at the moment”
This invariably invites the follow-up “why can’t you?”. You must be ready to produce a reason.
Any reasonable journalist will accept that you can’t answer questions about matters that are subject to commercial in-confidences agreements, or that are before the courts, If there’s a genuine reason of this nature, say so immediately. Be as open as you reasonably can about why you can’t answer, bearing in mind that whatever you give as the reason has the prospect of being published or broadcast.
That said, when you’re trying to keep out of the news, expressing your refusal in relatively bland terms will diminish the odds of your words being reported. If you have a flair for soundbites, this is not the time to display it.
You may elect to go off the record to explain why you won’t talk publicly but only do this if you have a good understanding of what “off the record” means, and you’re confident the journalist does too.
“Sorry I can’t help you with that today”
When you have to decline questions, express yourself in terms that reinforce that you are generally willing to assist the journalist and expect to do so in the future. It’s just this inquiry that’s an exception.
For instance, if a journalist is seeking comment on a negative article about your organisation in the financial press you could say: “I’m sorry I can’t help you with that today (subtext: but I will help you another day) but you know, it’s not our policy here to respond to reports of that kind. Is there something else you want to talk about? (I am generally willing to help) Okay. Another time, then. Talk to you soon (we have an ongoing relationship).”
Although it’s important to indicate that you take the journalist and his inquiry seriously, humour can sometimes defuse a tense moment (“That’s an outrageous question, John! You don’t expect me to answer that, do you?”) and remind both of you that none of this is personal. As with going off the record, you need to be sure of your mark, as you will not want to see this mutate into “A spokesman for Smith Corporation said the allegations were “outrageous”.”
“I CAN’T HELP YOU WITH THIS ONE, BUT TRY SO-AND-SO . . .”
The journalist has contacted you because he wants you to help with a story. Even if you can’t deliver what he wants, you may be able to make his job easier by suggesting alternatives.
When you won’t answer a question, the journalist will go to someone else. In a lot of industries, that someone else will come from a rival company and potentially be hostile.
Depending on the nature of the inquiry, you may be able to suggest an alternative interviewee who you believe will be friendly or impartial i.e. “Anne Smith at the industry association may have something to say about this” or “Professor Jones from ANU has written a really thorough paper on this – here’s his email address”.
“IF YOU CAN HANG IN THERE FOR A COUPLE OF WEEKS . . .”
Can you suggest that if the journalist can put this line of inquiry on hold, he’ll be the first to know when you’re in a position to say something? For example, when the time comes, you might offer him an advance viewing of an embargoed announcement.Or that you might have a better story for him in the near future?
Under no circumstances should you take this approach unless you are confident of being able to deliver in the short term. Beware of using it simply as a delaying tactic. If you don’t cough up a decent exclusive within a matter of weeks, the journalist may feel compromised as well as duped, with predictable consequences for you.