The “No-comment” Fallacy

Imagine this scenario: 

You receive reports of an after-hours spill at your nearest facility.  Minutes later as you arrive on-site, you’re greeted in the parking lot by an aggressive, microphone-wielding reporter asking you antagonistically, “How could you let this happen?” In attempt to move quickly away from the exchange, you wave your hand dismissively, mutter “no comment,” and start toward the employee entrance to find out what’s really going on. 

Within minutes, a headline appears on the homepage of major regional newspaper, reading: 

Chemical spill may affect thousands; company says “no comment”

This scenario is many things – frightening, disheartening and upsetting, to name a few. But it certainly isn’t uncommon.  It’s 2017.  A news cycle is immediate; appetites for information following a crisis are insatiable.  

And “no comment” simply is no longer an option.  

As a society, we have been conditioned to treat a “no comment” response either as an admission of wrongdoing or an expression of indifference.  When we say no comment, we feel evasive.  And it shows.  To the viewer, a spokesperson on TV saying “no comment” feels much like a callous guilty plea. 

So, why, then, is “no comment” so often our knee-jerk reply?  Is it so engrained in us from D.C. television dramas?  Are we too often taking the direction of legal counsel without paying mind to reputational risk?  Or is it simply like your appendix – a vestigial carryover from a different time, offering very little benefit but carrying within it the power to kill you on the wrong day. 

At its heart, the fallacy of “no comment” is one of false dilemma.  To the untrained and unintentional spokesperson, you feel you are thrust into a situation where you must either say nothing (“no comment”) to avoid the alternative of saying absolutely everything.  In many cases, spokespersons think of their duty as to convey specific information … to communicate details.  And they feel they must fill the gaps with speculation or guesswork.  

But it is, as I said, a false dilemma.  

Spokesperson can – and must – say simply what is in their interest and that of their constituents.  Because today’s news cycle demands we speak nearly instantaneously, spokespersons often must communicate before they have any detail at all.  Effective spokespersons can communicate with tone and intention; by articulating policies and procedures; sometimes, by simply promising to keep their audiences informed.  

It is, in a sense, expert spokespersons can say no comment without uttering the phrase. It’s a skill set that is not innate to any communicator, but one that is learned.  One that comes only through training and repetition.  

But it’s a skill set that, in today’s snap-judgement culture, may be more vital than ever. 

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