This article was first published on Dec 27, 2010, and revised on Nov 24, 2017.
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:
– inappropriate timing at a strategic level
– unwilling or unsuitable spokespeople
– commercial-in-confidence information
However, avoiding a question or declining to reply has the potential to damage a valuable, long-standing relationship with a journalist, or to cause that person to hold a negative attitude towards you.
It doesn’t have to go that way. 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 they are seeking and to their 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 only make undertakings on which you can deliver.
If you know the odds are that you will be ringing the journalist back to tell them you can’t answer their questions, don’t leave them 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 to, but you’ll see what you can do.
Undertake to get back to the journalist within an agreed timeframe, and do so, even if only to apologise for having failed to produce the answers they want. Do not waste their time or raise their ire by leaving them to call you repeatedly, or by deliberately delaying calling back until the deadline is passed. 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-confidence 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.
“I’m sorry I can’t help you with that today”
When you need 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).”
Be cautious about trying to use humour to diffuse a tense moment. It could backfire. You might refer to the question as ‘outrageous’ in jest, but that might be misconstrued and put in print as your official response. It’s important to indicate that you take the journalist and their enquiry seriously.
“I can’t help you with this one, but try so-and-so . . .”
The journalist has contacted you because they want you to help with a story. Even if you can’t deliver what they want, you may be able to make their job easier by suggesting alternative contacts.
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 could 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, e.g. “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, they’ll be the first to know when you’re in a position to say something? For example, when the time comes, you might offer them an advance viewing of an embargoed announcement. Or that you might have a better story for them 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.