Has “No comment” become a free pass?

Call me old school but there was a time in our industry when “No comment” was not OK. At worst, it implied you had something to hide. At best, it showed disdain for the media and their audiences.

And while many lawyers are quite at home instructing their clients (and often the clients’ PR company) to respond with an unperturbed “No comment” – or words to that effect – to those of us trained to respond to media enquiries, declining to comment does not make things go away. In fact, it often gives journalists the liberty to speculate or report inaccurate information from other sources.

So, when our clients or their practises are under media scrutiny, at Pead PR we bust a gut to secure a comment.  Obviously, there are occasions where no one is available to comment in time for a tight deadline, or facts and information need to be gathered and checked before comment can be supplied.  A good comms team manages these expectations with media.

But it seems increasingly of late that media are happy to publish a story with a blasé “no comment” or an indifferent “declined to comment”, and I can’t help thinking that the ones who don’t bother to comment are now getting a free pass. 

This was brought home to me recently by a story by Nikki Mandow, Business Editor of Newsroom.

A shocking report on the slave labour conditions at tomato farms in Italy had caught Nikki’s attention. The report led her to question the origin of cheap tomatoes sold in NZ and the conditions under which they are harvested.

Nikki and Newsroom are both highly regarded by the team at Pead PR and when an enquiry from them lands in our inbox, we make all efforts to respond.  Nikki wanted to know from our client My Food Bag if the Italian tomatoes they use are produced by companies who provide fair and ethical conditions to their workers?

Wheels were put in motion.  Many hours invested in contacting the tomato growers in Italy, who were called in from the crops to respond to Nikki’s questions. 

My Food Bag has been a client of ours since before it launched and we know this company very well.  The great values laid down by the founders are cemented in its DNA.  We know they insist on a high standard of ethics in their supply chain and we are familiar with the legally binding agreements they have in place with local producers and offshore agents. We believe them when they say if there was ever any suggestion the ethical terms in those agreements were not being adhered to, they would take immediate action. 

And even though My Food Bag is small compared to NZ’s grocery duopoly, it does everything it can to ensure its meal kits are ethical.

So, we liaised with them and prepared a statement, and once all the facts were double checked, met our obligation by responding to Newsroom’s questions with a comment. We were also able to confirm (after deadline) that My Food Bag’s Italian supplier uses only mechanically harvested tomatoes.

As expected, Nikki’s in-depth story left few stones unturned – albeit sans a decent response from the German-owned multinational Hello Fresh.

Hello Fresh has spent up large trying to dominate the local meal kit market since it landed in NZ in 2018.  It has a strong digital presence with influencers and YouTube ads, as well as flyers in letterboxes.  They have a lot to say about their meal kits – some of which include tinned tomatoes

And for an organisation that operates in 14 countries we were interested to read their response and to understand their ethical sourcing policies.

But when Newsroom asked about its ethical sourcing policies, the postscript in Nikki’s story was this: “Newsroom contacted several other New Zealand companies about Italian tinned tomatoes, including food bag Hello Fresh, and importer Davis. Neither responded.”

Which left me wondering how a food company with a significant market share could not respond to what was one of the most important food provenance stories of the year? In my humble opinion it seemed Hello Fresh (and for that matter Davis) had got a free pass.

And it makes it hard to justify to a client the need to do the right thing and provide answers to tough questions, even if it means hours of work in a busy day, when others simply ignore the question with no consequence.

In a subsequent, friendly conversation with Nikki, I asked her about modern media attitudes towards “No comment”. She said she found supplied comments as bad as none and would far rather speak to the spokesperson. She also told me that media are frustrated by the increased reliance on written statements, and that the policy of only allowing media comment to come from comms teams is not fostering good journalism.

Which is understandable but, in this instance, we had declined an interview because we felt the slave labour report was not our story and we could not risk our client’s name forever being associated with the issue in online searches.

But as I said, I’m old school, and maybe this rule needs an overhaul.  In the interim, here are our Pead PR’s in-house rules around commenting:

  1. If the story pertains to the client’s business, they must front up and manage their own bad news.
  2. Be truthful about the issue and explain the steps being taken to resolve the matter.
  3. If they are being asked to comment on someone else’s issue, a written comment should suffice.
  4. It’s important to respond quickly and keep media up to date as new information comes to hand.
  5. Offer as much information as possible to avoid the chance of inaccuracies filling the space
  6. And if you can’t comment for a legitimate and often legal reason – explain why.

Because while we’re all just doing our jobs – the media, PR consultants and our clients – and when it comes to important issues, we need to meet in the middle.

But if all of us start becoming fine with “No comment”, we’re letting down the most important audience of all and the people who ultimately pay all our wages – the public.