Thursday, June 4, 2009

No comment - the silent reputation killer

Recently, I read a detailed article chronicling one company’s efforts to downsize. The story was written mainly from the perspective of the terminated employees. The reason? Company representatives did not make themselves available for an interview. In fact, the writer recounted several instances where he tried to get the company’s side of the story, only to be rebuffed.

As you may have guessed, the resulting article was predominately negative in its assessment of this organization’s actions. Within a week of publication, company representatives contacted the publication, expressing concern over the content of the article. Though the publication printed the corporation’s attempts to clarify and contest details it claimed were erroneous, I wondered how many readers read this defence with an open mind. The effort struck me as too little, too late. After all, representatives were offered numerous opportunities to set the record straight before the article was published. Yet they chose not to comment.

When faced with media inquiries, particularly about subjects that are negative or uncomfortable, you may be tempted to follow this company’s lead and use ‘no comment’ as your communications strategy. After all, it’s simple, it’s quick and, as many lawyers will likely tell you, it mitigates the risk you’ll say something that can be used against you in a court of law. Yet, refusing to respond to media questions may result in considerable harm to your organization’s reputation or brand in the court of public opinion.

Typically, when you shun media requests for comment on a topic or issue, you give others the power to influence or shape the story. Whether it is former employees or disappointed consumers, these are people who may not see you in a positive light. That means the resulting coverage is likely to be negative as well. By answering questions, you have an opportunity to get your side of the story on record, provide facts or data that support your position, and ensure some degree of balance or fairness in the reporting.

If you maintain silence, people will assume you have something to hide, and will attempt to fill in the blanks for themselves. The rumours and innuendo that result are often far worse than the actual situation. Moreover, they will only grow in number and magnitude as people share their perceptions through social media tools such as blogs, chat boards and Twitter. The damage to your organization’s image as these rumours spread will be swift, extensive and difficult to overcome.

Remember, too, that trying to set the record straight after a negative article is printed is like closing the barn door after the horses have escaped. People have read it and formed an opinion of you before you’ve formulated your reply. By the time your response appears, they’ve moved on, making it difficult for you to rehabilitate your brand and win back public trust. In short, it’s easier and less expensive to maintain a solid reputation than to rebuild it.

Here’s something else to consider: if you make no comment now, you may find it difficult to secure media coverage or public interest later when you do have vital news to share, such as a product launch. Media outlets are less inclined to give you the time of day if they suspect you will only interact with them when it is in your best interests.

So when a reporter approaches you for a comment, offer one. Even if you have to ask for time to check details and get your story straight, it’s in your interests to participate. Your brand is at stake.

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