You Don’t Say: Three Expressions That Sabotage Interviews

Media trainers spend a lot of time helping clients figure out what to say to reporters and, especially, how to say it. But no media strategy is complete without a discussion of the language to be avoided. These are the simple phrases that can overshadow solid messaging and taint an otherwise successful interview.

Some expressions are dangerous for a particular media encounter, but safe in other contexts.  And then there are those phrases that tend to be treacherous in any interview. While there are rare exceptions, these lines will almost always make a reporter take note, and a media trainer cringe:

“No Comment”

 Why you shouldn’t say it:

This is the “go-to” panic button for any interviewee who hasn’t had media training. The problem is, journalists tend to take it literally. “No comment” doesn’t mean I don’t know, or let me think about that. “No comment” means I know something and I am going to hide it from you.

Reporters expect “no comment” from cops at crime scenes and senators leaving security briefings. But it just doesn’t fly when used by corporate spokespeople.

What to do instead:

Acknowledge the question and bridge back to your message. Remember: It’s perfectly OK to have no comment; it’s just not acceptable to say “no comment.”

“Off the Record”

Why you shouldn’t say it:

“Off the record” was an unnecessary risk back in the days when reporters had journalism degrees and fedoras with “press” written on them. And the phrase is twice as dangerous in the era of citizen journalism.

Some reporters don’t even know exactly what the phrase means (Can’t use the information at all? Use it without attribution? OK to share with other sources?). Others may be so overworked that they inadvertently run with off-the-record information. And then there’s the tiny fraction of reporters who may deliberately ignore “off the record” for the sake of a bigger story.

What to do instead:

Never say anything to a reporter that you wouldn’t want to see in the story. Period.

 “There’s really no story here.”

 Why you shouldn’t say it:

It’s no secret that many reporters have no choice in their assignments, and often don’t like the stories they end up covering. But they tend to get very defensive, sometimes downright offended, when PR types or interviewees insist there’s “no story.” At the very least, it suggests the reporter is incapable of determining what’s news. But because this is a tactic often employed by people trying to hide something, it may even encourage the reporter to dig deeper.

What you should do instead:

Show, don’t tell. If it really isn’t news, you should be able to demonstrate that simply by helping the reporter better understand the (non) issue. Consider language such as “We haven’t received any concerns about this,” or “This is something that has been public knowledge for quite some time.” But unless you have a genuine time-tested relationship built on mutual trust, keep your language subtle. Let the reporter make the ultimate decision as to whether something is newsworthy.

After all, even if it turns out to be a story, that doesn’t mean you have to be in it.