Companies often find themselves in situations where they are not in a position to make public statements, and the challenge is always how do you say, “No comment,” without saying, “No comment?” PR consultants, who focus on corporate and brand reputation, and lawyers, who focus on corporate legal exposure, often give conflicting advice. Lawyers like, “No comment.” The non-commitment that comes from that statement makes their job so much easier. “No comment,” however, does not make the story go away. Those two words actually say, “I know a lot; I’m just not going to tell you!”

“No comment” encourages the journalist to go around management to find an answer to the question from other sources. That answer from other sources is frequently inaccurate, and it can not only generate misinformation about the company, but it can also fuel further damaging speculation. In constructing a response when you are prohibited from providing substantive information, consider the following scenarios:

1) Speculative questions: Sometimes rumors circulate on a very low level. These rumors can relate to a potential IPO, financial transactions like a merger or acquisition, or a new technology or product the company is developing. Rumors abound, and it is reasonable that companies cannot speak to every issue raised by a journalist. Management can often deflect these questions by saying, “As a matter of corporate policy, we do not comment on rumor or speculation in the market.”

2) Persistent rumors: Rumors, good or bad, can grow and take on a life of their own. Investors can trade on recurring rumors, or consumers may make purchasing decisions about a company’s products based on rumors. Once rumors begin to influence the media’s coverage and perception of the company, management needs to contain the issue as quickly as possible. If the company needs more time to address the rumor completely, acknowledge the issue when asked by a journalist and give a realistic timeframe when the company can provide more clarity and details. Be committed to your timeframe, and contact the journalist in a timely manner.

3) Crisis: Occasionally, the media will have the story before you do. You may not have complete information to give. In this situation, provide as much accurate information as you can, even as limited as it may be; explain how the company is addressing the situation; and provide a timeframe to get back to the journalist with more information.

Any “No comment” response should show respect to the reporter asking the question. Sometimes you will just not be able to discuss a matter in public, but if you explain the reasons why that is so, you enhance your credibility with both the media and your company stakeholders. If management demonstrates a willingness to work with the media on providing timely and accurate information, journalists will more likely respond in a reasonable fashion.