In the course of writing many controversial stories as a journalist for local and international publications of all sizes, never once did a source absolutely, positively have to speak to me.
Certainly, I would position conversations in a way that would cause most to think it was in his or her interest to talk. But it was even more in my interest. It helped me be fair, which is important, but equally as compelling was the fact that the source’s words were often the key that opened the door to a story getting told at all.
It is a secret that most journalists don’t divulge: sometimes they don’t actually have enough substance to a scandal-tinged story until and unless the person caught in its crosshairs responds to their queries.
So if it appears that your client may have little choice but to acquiesce to a reporter’s persistent requests for an interview, recognize that you still have options: you can flat-out decline to talk or you can at least limit remarks to a simple on-the-record statement.
Declining to talk is a choice, though a risky one. On the one hand, it's a roll of the dice in terms of what the reporter is writing, and how he or she will juxtapose your "no comment" with that story. On the other hand, consider Proverbs 17:28: "Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent."
In the face of an onslaught of criticism or controversy, to remain silent can come across as powerful--as if the subject of that criticism is living well above the fray and knows something well beyond what is readily apparent. When he operated a company in the mobile home industry, and would be in the midst of others debating a topic that left him scratching his head, future Amway Diamond Joe Foglio would heed this proverb, he told World Wide DreamBuilders (WWDB) audiences. As a result, he would be "considered wise" and "deemed intelligent" when in truth he was struggling to learn the ropes.
Keep in mind: if legal authorities such as police officers and judges cannot compel people to speak (though they can impose sanctions and hold someone in contempt of court, if they like), journalists certainly are in no position to mandate a response.
Of course, during my reporting days, there are plenty of reasons why a source rightfully saw it in his or her best interest to speak with me. It truly represented a win-win situation.
There were also occasions, however, when sources continued speaking with me well past the point when it behooved them. In fact, if I were their publicist, I would not only have urged them to politely excuse themselves and decline to comment further (if at all), but I would have grabbed and hung up the phone (after a polite good-bye, of course) on my journalistic alter ego.
As a journalist, I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of coaxing people to speak to me when it provided me with fodder to further expose their questionable behavior or even corrupt activities. And one of the tools that I wielded in those conversations was damning information and critical commentary obtained from other sources.
“If you’d like,” I would explain, “this is your chance to respond and defend yourself.”
Doing so was only professional and fair—offering an opportunity for a subject to share his or her side of the story. But at the same time, as touched on above: without an active, almost point-by-point defense from the subject of a so-called scandal, there can be great reluctance among editors to publish the story.
The reasons at the root of that reluctance are as varied and complex as the broad array of stories that can be told.
Sometimes, it’s a nagging sense that they don’t have enough clarity about a situation to be confident in running a story. The fear flowing from that feeling is that the murkiness could come back to haunt the media outlet with a later revelation that paints it as biased, sloppy, mean spirited—and leaves it vulnerable to legal action.
Then again, all bets are off if the media outlet, fairly or unfairly, harbors no such concerns.
Next: In Part II: When you hold the key to your controversial story, we explore some of a scenario’s characteristics that make it a prime candidate for shrugging off or even being so bold as to laugh off a media inquiry.