A PR Guide to Strategic Silence

In an era of constant communication, most PR agency experts will say that silence is rarely an option in the wake of controversy. In times of trouble, a “no comment” may be seen as a sign of guilt, indecision, or apathy. PR experts sound the alarm about the communication vacuum in such cases, worried that damaging or inaccurate chatter will fill the void and they’ll lose control of the narrative. Often, they’re right. But there are some scenarios where strategic silence is the most sensible path.

When silence makes sense

When third parties are already defending you

It may be unnecessary or even counterproductive to join the fray when brand ambassadors, or regular customers, are already on the case. This is particularly true when the criticism is questionable. In 2015, Starbucks was accused of being part of a “war on Christmas” when it unveiled plain red holiday cups. An activist’s video garnered 13 million views and launched the hashtag #MerryChristmasStarbucks.

Starbucks wisely didn’t engage the activist, nor did it post in its own defense. It had plenty of defenders who fired back on social platforms with #JustaCup, including celebrity influencers like Weird Al Yankovic, Demi Lovato, and Stephen Colbert. Strategic silence was the best course of action here, because any interjection by the brand would have probably amplified the negative attention and fueled greater criticism.

Never wrestle a pig

Another occasion where it doesn’t pay to engage with critics is when they’re minor players, crazy, or both. Any significant social response may serve to elevate or dignify a nutty claim, while silence preserves the brand’s standing by rising above trolls and cranks. This means that a customer service or PR team must recognize the difference between an anonymous troll with a miniscule following and a legitimate customer or influencer. It’s where experience and good judgment come into play.

The troll is too powerful

On the flipside, there are some critics who aren’t worth engaging because they command a bully pulpit. In April, a presidential Twitter tirade against Amazon helped the company’s share price plunge 11% in one week. Though CEO Jeff Bezos has fired back at the president in pre-election social showdowns, he abstained from a public kerfuffle this time. This was a defensible move, in part because Trump’s every tweet will be magnified in the mainstream media. Then, too, the news cycle is rapid, and this president tends to move on quickly to other issues. Silence was a reasonable tactic here.

When you don’t have all the facts

Crisis-management best practice calls for an immediate response where a brand or personal reputation is on the line. But, temporary strategic silence is sometimes necessary for a company to offer an accurate response. For example, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg waited five days before giving TV interviews and issuing apology statements about the Cambridge Analytica controversy. That’s far from an ideal scenario, but sometimes rushing in without facts is worse.

Most analysts criticize Zuckerberg’s tardy and inadequate response as a PR misstep. Without question, its image has been tarnished by its own conduct, and the response didn’t help. Yet if a company speaks before it has all the information, it risks inflaming the crisis, or, worse, inviting legal liability. Where silence is unavoidable, a statement that acknowledges the problem and pledges to get to the bottom of it is a logical starting point. This is particularly true when the situation is as legally and technically complicated as the data privacy scandal.

When the SEO isn’t good

Sometimes a company has a well crafted public position on a controversial topic but chooses not to comment on a relevant development for SEO reasons. A beverage alcohol brand may lead a campaign against underage drinking – motivated by the halo that comes with such an effort. That’s laudable. But for the same company to comment on a congressional investigation into marketing to minors might forever link the brand to that inquiry. Even though it’s on the right side of the issue, its brand will turn up when any journalist researches the topic for a story or follow-up. This is where third-party advocates or industry trade associations come in handy, because they can speak for the individual players without having any brand or company be front and center in the public discussion.

While it goes against a basic tenet of good public relations, silence beats a hasty, half-baked response that can be seen as tone-deaf, premature, or insincere. The trick is to use it sparingly, and only as a prelude to responsible engagement.

Reactive PR Opportunities In Brand Mentions

Most often, reactive PR is associated with “newsjacking,” where a brand may seize on a trending news story through social posts or expert commentary in the media. Then there are the real-time marketing coups, like when  Tide and Oreo took advantage of the 2013 Super Bowl blackout with witty ads; or Snickers sent its product to the Top Gear host who had been suspended for having a meltdown on set.

Whatever you call it, reactive PR response can we a winning tactical play. When brands happen to get a mention in pop culture in a tangential, incidental, or even neutral manner, a creative PR pro can start a new conversation spotlighting that brand.

PR wins from brand commandeering

Arby’s hits back with humor

Jon Stewart made a recurring comedic bit of referring to Arby’s in the most pejorative way, with mocking comments like “Arby’s: Because your hunger is stronger than your memory.” The chain responded to The Daily Show‘s criticisms with good nature and humor, much to its advantage. When Stewart retired as host, Arby’s even tweeted him a job application and made a hilarious farewell viral video. Instead of responding with silence, defensiveness, or counterattacks, the brand chose to live up to its good-natured persona through humor. In doing so, it created a positive association with a cultural touchstone and his large, loyal audience. And it did so in a dignified manner, taking home a reactive PR win.

Tide cleans up a crisis

Sometimes, a cultural phenomenon can be the source of incidental, undeserved negative brand attention. While not a direct attack on Tide’s products, the viral video trend of teenagers filming themselves eating Tide Pods in 2017-2018 led to many emergency room reports – and the risk of injury or worse. P&G responded by sharing a serious and subtly humorous video PSA with Rob Gronkowski, a popular athlete with appeal to teenagers. It also launched a social media campaign with humorous memes and messages about the dangers of the behavior. Not only is this episode considered textbook crisis management, but it also boosted Tide’s brand exposure. It followed the PSA with one of the most celebrated Super Bowl ads less than three weeks later. The brand took advantage by turning unwanted media attention into both a successful PR response and a marketing win.

Chevrolet goes from 0 to 62 million in 24 hours
Chevy PR real-time marketing win

As an official sponsor of Major League Baseball in 2014, it was up to Chevrolet to present the World Series MVP with a new Chevy Colorado in front of a national TV audience. But Chevy’s representative Rikk Wilde had stage fright and fumbled his speech, leading to his stuttering quip: “It combines class winning, um, leading… ‘ya know, technology and stuff.” Immediately, viewers made #TechnologyandStuff and #ChevyGuy trending hashtags, mocking Wilde and Chevrolet. Instead of passively absorbing the dent to its image, the PR team capitalized on the opportunity to show its down-to-earth good humor.
Chevy joined the #TechnologyandStuff party, leading to over 62 million impressions, a viral video, and newfound celebrity for the #ChevyGuy. Chevrolet even incorporated ChevyGuy into its future marketing campaigns. Like Arby’s, Chevy responded in a way that was authentic to its brand voice and aligned with its customer values, skillfully creating a positive windfall out of a potential PR setback.

McDonald’s wrong-time marketing?

Like newsjacking, brand commandeering must be executed only in appropriate situations, with appropriate timing, and with consideration of the big picture. In May of 2013, three Cleveland women who had been held captive by a violent predator were rescued with the help of Charles Ramsey, who was living next door. In TV news interviews of the rescue, Ramsey mentioned he’d been eating a Big Mac when he heard the victims’ shouts for help. Taking a chance by newsjacking the mention of its brand, McDonald’s tweeted, “Way to go Charles Ramsey. We’ll be in touch.”

Most observers accepted the tweet from McDonald’s as a nice part of the story, given the enormous media interest in the case and Ramsey’s feel-good role in helping free the women. Yet the brand may have jumped on the news too soon, as it soon came out that Ramsey’s past included charges of domestic violence, burglary, drug abuse, and jail time. The brand made good on its pledge to give Ramsey free Big Macs for a year and donated $10,000 to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children as a good-will gesture, but it turned out the rescue wasn’t such a golden PR opportunity after all.

PR makes a real-time social statement

Last week, Sanofi, the maker of Ambien, seized on Roseanne Barr’s name-drop of its product in her controversial Twitter apology for her racist tweet. The Sanofi PR team used subtle wit and plain language to start its own conversation about the social issue in question. More humor would have been reductive, and a more personal attack on Barr would have probably been excessive. Instead the company took just enough of a stand to be relevant, but not alienate stakeholders.

Reactive PR is no longer solely the purview of crisis management. In certain scenarios, opportunistic PR/marketing actions can provide value-added publicity for your brand. While forethought and proactivity are still everything to best public relations practice, reactive PR should be taken seriously as a powerful tool in generating value out of a seemingly minor mention of your brand. A creative PR pro who has a firm command of your genuine brand voice can make something out of nothing when the next unhinged celebrity or unlikely hero name-drops your product and forces your brand into the limelight.