‘I didn’t say that’ – spokesperson’s denial makes a bad story worse

How’s this for an approach to a damaging story?

A journalist calls you up to ‘clarify’ something you said and you deny that you had used a particular word.

When the reporter reveals they have a recording of you using it, you then claim that you didn’t mean it literally.

If that’s not bad enough, you then give a list of offensive words you could have said that could also be taken out of context.

And then you produce an example of you using one of those phrases.

If that all sounds a bit unrealistic, let me tell you that this happened just this week and it was something we could not ignore in this media training blog.

It happened in Ireland after politician Catherine Noone described Taoiseach Leo Varadaker as “autistic” after being asked about his performance on a television debate.

Ms Noone, a senator running in the general election, said: “He’s autistic like, he’s on the spectrum, there’s no doubt about it. He’s uncomfortable socially and he doesn’t always get the in-between bits.

“If I do say so, I am much more natural than he would be. I’ve been in rooms with him and he doesn’t know what to do with himself. He’s naturally shy. But he’s actually a very good politician.”

When The Times asked her for clarification about her comments, Ms Noone initially denied using the word ‘autistic’, only to be informed that there was a recording.

She then claimed she had not meant it literally.

“I didn’t mean it in the sense of the actual illness or anything. I just mean he can be a bit wooden and lacking in empathy,” she said. “I shouldn’t have even said it in that way.”

According to The Times, she then gave examples of offensive words that could be used out of context, including “special” and “n***er”, before clarifying that she wouldn’t use the N-word.

And then to show how her comment had been taken out of context, she said: “Sometimes I say, ‘Oh God, I’m a bit special’, but I don’t mean it to be derogatory.”

Unsurprisingly, this all ended with an apology, issued yesterday morning (28/1). Ms Noone said: “I unequivocally apologise and withdraw all of my remarks, as reported by theTimes.ie (SIC), which were completely unacceptable. My choice of language was inexcusable and wrong. I am truly sorry.”

This was always going to be a damaging story, but the way it was handled only made matters worse.

Denying you have said something, only to find out there is a recording, puts you on shaky ground and raises questions of trustworthiness.

But then going on to offer a second excuse about context just compounds the issue. And it is an excuse that is used far too often by spokespeople, and is rarely believed.

The Urban Dictionary defines ‘taken out of context’ as: “A phrase used by countless politicians, celebrities, and television/radio hosts to justify any stupid thing they ever say. While occasionally something is taken out of context, it is mostly ridiculous.”

As for detailing other things you could say, that is a frankly bizarre approach, that only serves to create more damaging quotes.

So, what can other spokespeople learn from this?


I didn’t say that

We often find out at the start of our media training courses that delegates have a fear of being misquoted.

The reality is that being misquoted is something that happens rarely. Journalists not only take detailed notes but also tend to record conversations.

Ms Noone’s initial comment was made as a journalist from The Times covered her canvassing for support in Dublin and chatting to voters on the doorstep.

Perhaps Ms Noone felt that conversation wouldn’t end up in print or would be edited, or perhaps she just dropped her guard as she spent more time with the journalist in what was probably a relaxed setting.

When I used to take journalists out on police operations and raids in a previous role, my advice was always the same – everything you say could end up being quoted whether it is part of an interview or just in general conversation.  

The key in situations like this is to try and remain calm and relaxed but never go into auto-pilot and not properly consider what you are saying.


Don’t say anything you don’t want published

When Ms Noone was offering her denials and excuses for her earlier comment, did she think they would be used as quotes?

We’ll probably never know the answer to that, but the golden rule here is to avoid saying something you don’t want to see in print or online.

The reporter does not need your permission to write or print anything you say, no matter how rambling or incoherent it seems, and ‘off-the-record’ is a vague phrase which means different things to different people and is not legally binding.


Get in front of the story

When Ms Noone had been confronted about her comments, she could have used social media to try and get in front of the story before it was published.

Breaking your own bad news takes bravery, but if it is done well it can help to shape the narrative and create an impression of transparency, openness and trustworthiness.

Why wait until the story is published – as Ms Noone did – before issuing an apology and trying to show remorse?

It is not as if The Times story was going to go away or wouldn’t be published.


Avoid the ‘out of context’ excuse

No-one believes the ‘out of context’ line. It is viewed simply as an excuse someone uses when they have said something they regret.


But what if you have been misquoted?

If being ‘misquoted’ is unlikely to cause any significant harm, then the best course of action is to let it go. A printed article can’t be amended and corrections are always much smaller than the original story.

Context is also important. If you are unhappy about a particular quote, but it has been given in the context of your organisation having made a big mistake, then highlighting and challenging it may be seen as petty and could cause more damage.

If you do feel the misquote damages your reputation or the business, contact the publication and make a suggestion on how it can be fixed, such as print and online corrections.


How good is your media interview preparation? Our FREE media interview preparation eBook will guide you through everything you need to do to be best prepared for a media opportunity.


Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers.

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