This is the new “no comment,” the new hand-over-the-camera-lens tactic. It’s wrong. It’s lousy public relations. It’s the coward’s way out of an uncomfortable topic. Worst of all, it does a disservice to the organization and the people it serves.
A wise PR friend of mine is fond of saying, “If you don’t speak for yourself, others will gladly speak for you.” In this era where messages get delivered in countless ways, many of them directly to your audience, the risks of simply ignoring an issue are far greater.
I call this approach, or lack thereof, a “pocket veto.” For those unfamiliar with the term: In the U.S., if the President receives a bill from Congress and ignores it for 10 days, and Congress isn’t in session at that time, the bill doesn’t become law. Presidents use this tool when they want to kill the legislation without having to explain why. (Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a master at this; of more than 600 bills he vetoed while president, more than 4 in 10 died via pocket veto.)
You can see the similarities. But a pocket veto in PR doesn’t make the issue magically go away. The public has questions; reporters work on their behalf to get answers. And they will get them—if not from the company, then from another source. If that source delivers wrong or misguided information, you now face the double task of correcting it and tackling the original issue—assuming you have any credibility left.
Ignoring media calls isn’t a new thing, but the upward trend seems more recent. Maybe it’s a result of fading PR expertise as organizations lean more heavily on marketing communications. Or maybe it’s a simple issue of capacity, with communicators stretched too thin to respond to every query from every vehicle.
But I don’t believe either of those explanations. I believe companies that pull this stunt are gambling that their lack of response will starve the story. With savaged newsrooms and a continuous news cycle, they reason, it’s simply a matter of waiting it out until the next big story hits.
That’s naïve and short-term thinking. How can your organization build trust if you aren’t willing to talk about the tough issues? Even if there are solid legal reasons not to speak in detail, then you should say so. Ignoring the issue and the questions surrounding it sends the message that you don’t care about your audience nor respect them enough to respond.
Make no mistake, reporters will remember your silence. So will your audience.