Understanding the Power of Strategic Silence in Communications

Although it’s an oversimplification of the job of public relations to say that it’s just about getting media coverage, that is a core function of the role. Given the importance placed on securing placements, it might feel strange to recommend silence.

But sometimes, silence is your best option as a communicator. Being strategic is knowing when it’s time to speak up—and when it’s time to be quiet.

Anything from an unfolding major crisis to a leak, to being asked to comment on a specific individual.

When you aren’t ready to go public yet

In an around-the-clock news cycle with hyper-competitive media outlets wanting to break a story, there is incredible pressure to be first, and what is generally sacrificed in that environment is accuracy.

This means that even if you were mentally prepared to have a story hit—whether good or bad—you might be called to comment before you are ready for it to be public. If you are waiting on key information, it’s better to say nothing than make yourself available for comment and then not be able to say anything relevant.

As noted, not having a full story to tell can happen with either good or bad situations. For example, let’s say your company has been in discussions with a high-profile influencer to come on board, but the details haven’t been finalized and the deal has not yet been signed. Word leaks out that you’re in discussions with someone…and then social media kicks into high gear with guesses.

While some might relish the buzz, if the deal isn’t signed yet, speaking out carries risk. The influencer could get a better offer from a competitor, get cold feet, or—referencing the attention—ask for more money.

When you don’t have all of the information

Similarly, there is a substantial risk of speaking out when you don’t have all of the information you need to comment on an issue or unfolding event. The biggest risk is of making a statement that is subsequently proven to be incorrect.

When that happens, media coverage could paint your spokesperson or company as inept, uninformed, or worse yet, as being knowingly misleading (also known as lying).

In a crisis, particularly at the onset, it can be hard to keep a clear head. Whether an impulse to address questions as they are being asked or just sheer exhaustion, a tendency to ad-lib or provide answers before the scope of the issue is really understood can cause all kinds of problems later on, so understanding that silence is an option is an important concept for communicators to embrace.

When it might make things worse

There’s a meme that has been circulating for a while showing a series of pictures from movies from the 1980s that reads, “when I was a kid, I thought that quicksand was going to be a much bigger problem than it actually is.” From cartoons to The Princess Bride, quicksand felt like an ever-present threat.

Even though it’s not particularly fatal or common to encounter, the thing with quicksand is that when you struggle, the deeper you can get sucked into it—which is an apt metaphor for a lot of PR challenges.

As communicators, we believe in direct, honest, and transparent discussions. But sometimes, even an honest answer will only serve to compound your PR problems.

For example, look at media coverage of CEO departure packages. These packages are almost always negotiated before a CEO even starts a job. And, they are legal agreements. But when a CEO departs (particularly if there have been problems at the company, and especially after layoffs), it flies in the face of reason that a single, already well-compensated individual should be heading off into the sunset with additional millions.

There’s no effective way to message this, particularly if the company is or was in trouble. Issuing a statement that defends the payout as necessary, or that you were bound by an existing agreement, will simply extend the story into another day (or week), and make it sound as though you are defending something that feels indefensible—one person getting millions, while many others suffer.

You are not going to get complimentary coverage from the media on this story; you’re better off not saying anything at all.

When your primary audience isn’t listening

Social media is the source of a lot of rumors, half-truths, and misinformation. These can lead to high volumes of negative content, and make some organizations feel as though they must “say something.”

Instead, lean on your media monitoring and analysis. Are these messages even reaching your target audience? If not, then silence while carefully monitoring might be your best option.

There are some topics that represent a higher legal risk than others. Anything to do with a specific employee’s health or employment status, accusations of criminal activity, issues that could affect stock prices if you’re a public company, speculation about product safety—these are just a handful of subjects that just shouldn’t be commented on, especially not off-the-cuff responses to a reporter when asked.

Silence, in response to questions on any of these types of topics, is a way to stay out of legal hot water.

The bottom line

Using strategic silence is a temporary measure, and should be deployed with careful thought as to when to break the silence. Each situation will be different.

Most of the scenarios in which silence is the best option have one thing in common: there is some element of crisis. This is true even if it’s in a mild sense, such as a story leaking out before you wanted it to. Because despite the fact that a story is good if you’re responding, you’re on someone else’s timetable rather than the one you wanted.

Consider this another reminder to get crisis plans in place now, before you need them. And, remember that a strategic use of silence is a valid and effective response that deserves a place in your planning.

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