Speak up or shut up: What to consider when your business is put under a media spotlight

speak up

Make the best use of the media microphone. Source: Unsplash/Kane Reinholdtsen

When you’re in the public spotlight over a high-profile issue, the first question is often: “What shall we say to the media?” But there is another important question you may need to consider first: “Should we say anything at all?”

It’s a common misapprehension that an organisation must speak to the media — and right away. That you somehow have a duty or obligation to do so. In normal circumstances this is generally not true. In reality, your principal obligation is to your organisation, your investors and other stakeholders. Just as the journalist’s obligation is to their editor.

Although it may be unaccustomed (and possibly counter-intuitive) advice, sometimes it is better for the media to report that you were unavailable for comment. Or were unavailable at this time. It can certainly be a better option than making a response you come to regret. Bearing in mind, of course, that making no comment is quite different from saying “no comment”.

Everyone has their favourite example of an executive or politician or celebrity under pressure making an ill-judged statement which comes to define them. Think no further than BP CEO Tony Hayward in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster saying he “wanted to get his life back”. The New York Times called it “the soundbite from hell”.

However — and this is a crucial distinction — that was in the heat of a catastrophic crisis, when being ‘unavailable for comment’ is almost never the right answer.

In a true organisational crisis, there is almost always something to say which is helpful and legally appropriate — even if it is no more than expressing regret and committing to find out exactly what happened.

Yet genuine existential crises are relatively rare, and the question “should we say anything at all?” is more often relevant in a non-crisis situation.

Will the proposed statement, no matter how carefully crafted, be helpful? Could it lead to self-incrimination? Is there anything positive to be gained? Is the proposed speaker capable of handling a high-risk situation and are they well-rehearsed? Is there simply any good reason to be talking to the media?

If there is no clear answer to these questions, don’t do it. Indeed, talking to the media for no good reason can actually create a crisis, or entrench reputational and legal damage.

There can be no better example of this folly than when Prince Andrew chose to go on TV in late 2019, reportedly to “draw a line” under his controversial involvement with sex-offender Jeffrey Epstein.

PR Week called it “a master class in PR disasters” and — after his recent settlement of a civil lawsuit — The Guardian concluded: “Stupidity and arrogance have cost Prince Andrew everything.”

Sadly, the disgraced royal is not alone in believing he could control a TV interview. Consider cyclist Lance Armstrong’s ill-advised appearance on Oprah, which cemented his reputation as an unrepentant drug cheat. Or Lord Bell, former CEO of the global PR giant Bell Pottinger, who gave a disastrous interview on Newsnight trying to deny involvement in the racially divisive, dirty-tricks campaign in South Africa which led to the company’s demise.

Or Dennis “Chip” Wilson, CEO of athletic-wear company Lululemon, which had successfully navigated a faulty product crisis with their yoga pants being too sheer. Then months later, he went on TV to “explain” the yoga pants issue and declared: “Quite frankly, some women’s bodies actually just don’t work for them.” The predictable outcry, and an astonishingly tone-deaf apology, saw him ousted as CEO of the company he founded.

Most importantly, in all three cases the person had no compelling reason to give an interview.

The lesson for communicators weighing whether to speak up or shut up is clear: never lose sight of your strategic objective and your own best interests. Or as American James Lukaszewski has expressed it: “Respond to the media only when your message goals are served. There is nothing in the Constitution which says you have to call the press back.”

Tony Jaques is an expert on issue and crisis management and risk communication. He is CEO of Melbourne-based consultancy Issue Outcomes and his latest book is Crisis Counsel: Navigating Legal and Communication Conflict.

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