Just shut up


Just shut up.

While that may not be the most polite phrase, it sometimes is the best communications strategy. It took me a long time to learn that.

In the nearly three decades I’ve been working in PR and communications, one of the hallmarks of my style has always been assertiveness, sometimes bordering on aggressiveness. Like many communicators, I hold to the idea that if you don’t tell your story, someone else will…often badly. Accordingly, I’ve always had a penchant for wanting to “get in there and mix it up” in situations that involved adversarial communications – labor disputes, conflicts over business matters, and so on. Call it the Irish New Yorker in me, but my default defense setting is to go on offense.

That said, I’ve learned first- and secondhand that, at times, it’s far smarter to remain silent and not engage, even in high-profile PR situations. The key to knowing when those times are lies in the ability to correctly read the stakeholder environment. Two examples illustrate what I mean.

About 10 years ago, while I was with Ketchum, I had the chance to work on the agency communications team for a multibillion-dollar merger. As with any large merger of consumer-facing companies, opponents like Consumers Union responded predictably, decrying what they (inaccurately) saw as the loss of consumer options, the likelihood of rising prices post merger, and so on. To be sure, we were well prepared to respond to these and other misplaced charges as the merger process progressed. However, for the most part, we kept silent. Why? Because one of the senior members of our team knew the key stakeholders – in this case, federal regulators – well enough to realize that hyperbolic claims by CU and others would not gain any traction. Strong responses on our part would only serve to give their claims a perception of credibility – “Why would Company X respond this way if there was no truth in the accusations?” Sure enough, the process moved smoothly to regulatory approval despite the opposition.

A more recent example involves a high-profile PR fiasco that we are all familiar with – the Cosby rape scandal. From a communications standpoint, this matter has been botched from day one. Even allowing for the difficulties that can arise when a PR strategy has to co-exist with a legal defense strategy, this matter has been completely fumbled by Team Cosby. The latest example: His lawyer, Martin Singer, issued a public statement late last week saying that he had documentation to dispute the latest accusations from a single accuser, a young woman who alleged an assault at the Playboy Mansion.

Seriously? With dozens (literally) of women standing in line hurling accusations, why would Team Cosby extend the news cycle by issuing a press release over a single accusation, a release that no one is likely to believe anyway regardless of its veracity? Even if you allow for the fact that this latest charge falls within the statute of limitations, and thus may warrant the legal team fighting it aggressively in the courts, why issue a statement on the matter, ensuring yet another round of bad headlines? It would be far smarter at this point for Cosby and his people to lay as low as possible, at least until the next high-profile scandal comes along and captures the public’s/media’s attention. It seems apparent at this point (IMO) that Team Cosby has no clue when it comes to reading their key stakeholders – in this case, a public that has been disillusioned at the fall of a beloved icon, has lost faith in him beyond redemption, and which now just wants the whole tawdry matter to go away.

Again, though it may go against the grain of many a communicator, sometimes the best PR strategy is no communications at all.

And with that, I’ll just shut up.