How to alienate reporters: Forbidden phrases to forgo during interviews

February 28, 2013

As PR pros, we are frequently on the front lines of media relations. Experienced communicators realize that there are certain phrases guaranteed to grate on a reporter’s nerves.

In many cases, it is our responsibility to counsel our executives and clients as they prepare for media interviews. Lessons in techniques such as bridging and flagging — which should come as second nature to most PR experts — are certainly advisable. (Don’t forget to instruct spokespeople to rehearse these techniques often. In my 15-plus years as a media-training consultant,  I’ve observed that it takes substantial time to internalize these practices.)

As an additional part of our educational efforts, it is useful to remind our spokespeople of expressions to avoid — expressions that are guaranteed to set reporters to digging deeper than you might like. Let’s examine them:

  • “No comment.” This is the granddaddy of them all. Uttering these two little words will lead most reporters to believe that you are trying to hide something.
  • “Why are you asking that?” The reporter’s motive doesn’t make a difference. Over time, good spokespeople gain the ability to redirect questions to more favorable ground.
  • “The earliest I can get back to you is next week.” Ask what the deadline is. Then, to the best of your ability, respond appropriately.  Don’t take the long route to answer a short question. If you want to be quoted in the story, then be succinct. Otherwise, competing organizations stand to earn the ink and airtime.
  • “Our end-to-end solutions create functionality for enterprises using IT platforms across all vertical channels.” Please answer all questions in plain language.  I’ll give you all the license you want to toss around buzzwords within the four walls of your office, but when speaking to a reporter, omit the industry jargon.
  • “I’m not sure, but I would guess…”  Uh-oh.  You are now in the process of going “on the record” in an area that you know next to nothing about. Never guess. Instead, explain that this is not your area of expertise and then, bridge to your message.
  • “I can’t tell you that.”  Reporters may inquire about legal, personnel or proprietary concerns.  They should understand your inability to comment in cases like these if you explain why.
  • “You’re not going to misquote me, are you?”  This is like asking your accountant, “That deduction isn’t going to get me in hot water with the IRS, is it?” Don’t overtly question a journalist’s professionalism.
  • “I don’t have any background material on that.” If you don’t have needed information at hand, then get it.  The more details that you provide to bolster your message, the more context the reporter will have when writing.
  • “It’s the media’s fault.” Boy, it sure sounds like you have something to hide. Only a media greenhorn would go this route.
  • “That’s a dumb question.” Nope. But this answer sure is dumb.  Take advantage of your chance to educate that reporter.
  • “Tell me the name of your publication again.” Preparation leads to success in the media. Do your research and know who is interviewing you.
  • “Call me back later. I’m too busy to talk to you now.” The odds of someone returning your call are slim to none.  Your competitors will get all the press.
  • “You’re just playing gotcha journalism.” This is the refuge of thin-skinned amateurs. Step aside and let the professionals handle the media spokesperson duties.
  • “I’m not the right person.” Maybe not.  Just be sure to tell the reporter who he or she should interview to get your organization’s viewpoint instead.
  • “But we bought advertising in your publication.” Your marketing department can buy all the ads they want to.  That doesn’t have anything to do with your media relations efforts.
  • “I didn’t realize that you wanted an on-camera interview.”  When TV outlets call, take for granted that you will be on camera. Practice accordingly.
  • “I’d like to review a copy of your article before it is published.” This is an editor’s job, not yours. Philosophically, journalistic independence is one of the underpinnings of a free press.

Remind your spokespeople and your less experienced PR colleagues to avoid these forbidden phrases. It will help you enhance your organization’s media relations endeavors, develop better relationships with reporters, and position yourself as the go-to expert in the eyes of your executives and clients.

Ed Barks
Ed Barks is president of Barks Communications, author of “The Truth About Public Speaking: The Three Keys to Great Presentations” and a member of the National Press Club’s Board of Governors. Visit to learn more.


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