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Why 'no comment' is not the answer

January, 2015

If a journalist asks you a question, there is very rarely an occasion when ‘no comment’ is the right answer, according to Rachel Knight, account director at Kent PR agency Maxim.

I do understand why companies sometimes choose not to answer a media enquiry or perhaps even ignore it altogether. They think the story will die down: ‘it’s a storm in a teacup and we don’t want to feed it’. The trouble is, that just isn’t an option in an age where news, especially bad news, spreads across the world in minutes.

If you are approached for a comment on a story and choose not to respond, the likelihood is it will run anyway with the sign off being something along the lines of ‘Company X declined to comment’. The reader probably assumes that the organisation is guilty of whatever it has been accused of – otherwise they’d deny it, right?

Well, no, not always. There are times when ‘declined to comment’ can mean that there genuinely wasn’t an appropriate spokesperson available to respond. Occasionally, for whatever reason, we get a call from the press half an hour before deadline and it’s virtually impossible to meet their requests.  

If you are reading this and thinking ‘how difficult can it be to answer a question in 30 minutes?’, imagine a project where there are numerous parties involved, where senior management are in constant meetings and every word needs to be carefully thought out. Getting hold of the right person, talking it through, drafting a comment – even just a couple of sentences – and then getting it approved by several people will invariably take a few hours (if you’re lucky).

A case in point

Recently the Kent & Sussex Courier ran a story about Temp Network, a recruitment agency in Tunbridge Wells, which was wound up just before Christmas leaving more than 100 Polish workers out of work. 

Ordinarily this would be a sad story but unfortunately not that unusual. However, five days after workers turned up to find the agency closed, owner Mike Waterton posted pictures on his blog of a luxury holiday in Mexico showcasing his motivational book. It seemed insensitive, to say the least, when there were tales of unpaid Polish workers having to cancel their trips home for Christmas.

I saw journalists attempt to contact Mr Waterton about the story via Twitter and presumably they tried other methods of reaching him.

I don’t know the company’s financial details so I am not in a position to comment about the staff who were left without their wages. What I can talk about is the way the situation was handled with the media.

The story really took off in the week between Christmas and New Year – not that surprising when you consider that most of the population is at home eating turkey sandwiches but journalists still have pages to fill and online targets to meet.

Somewhat predictably, the final line of the Courier’s article read ‘The Courier contacted Mike Waterton several times for a response about the demise of the agency but he declined to comment.’

Bad news spreads quickly

Within days, the story of the ‘heartless’ company director sunning himself in Mexico while workers were left unpaid had made national newspapers the Telegraph, the Daily Mail, the Independent and the Mirror, as well as trade press HR Grapevine. There was even coverage on Italian news site Il Mattino, Romanian site Gandul and Estonian site Ärileht

Mr Waterton is well known in the Tunbridge Wells business community so it was no surprise to see the news discussed at length on social media.

He began to respond to tweets saying a statement would be released on his blog the following morning, which it duly was.

It started by saying the ‘sudden and quick demise of Temp Network is regrettable’ but went on to state: “With regard to the "Luxury Holiday in Mexico" - as reported in the Daily Mail, The Independent, the Daily Mirror and Courier Group publications - at no time whatsoever was I on holiday in December of 2014 -  nor was I ever in Mexico. The photographs of Mexico, that were published on my website and in the newspapers, were in fact taken by a friend whom [sic] was on vacation in Cancun.

As I said earlier, I am not in a position to comment on Mr Waterton’s business dealings but to me, it seems odd he didn’t refute the claims that he was in Mexico earlier. If he had responded to the Courier’s initial enquiries – or even the tweets from members of the public – and explained that he was not in the photos, it seems unlikely the story would have made the national press.

Mr Waterton continued to tweet with comments such as ‘My statement has been released - press will apologise - the facts are wrong. Enough said - go do something productive!’ followed by a picture of his book that appeared to be at number six in a chart with the caption ‘Thank you Daily Mail’.

The online reports have been amended but I think he’ll be waiting for an apology for some time. The problem is, those reports are going to be accessible for a long time to come and whatever Mr Waterton now says, the headlines are still there for all to see.

If you want to know how best to manage your company’s reputation, get in touch on 01892 513033. 

Rachel Knight - Director

Rachel Knight

Maxim / Director

posted in: advice, media relations, reputation management,

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