When Doing Nothing Is the Best Strategy

03 Mar, 2015

By Doug Pinkham

Public Affairs Council President
March 3, 2015

Back in the 1970s, a magazine called New Times published a cover story listing what it called “The 10 Dumbest Members of Congress.” The article, written by Nina Totenberg (now NPR’s legal affairs correspondent), concluded that Sen. William Scott (R-Va.) deserved the title as the dumbest of the dumb.

That was it. A struggling biweekly magazine with a small circulation poked fun at Washington politicians with a propensity for saying stupid things.

Except that wasn’t it. Upon reading the article, Scott decided to call a press conference to refute the charges. According to media reports, Scott said the story was “unwarranted” and he was thinking of suing New Times for libel, but he was concerned he might lose the case in court. Needless to say, the national news coverage that followed offered proof that Scott was, in fact, the dumbest member of Congress.

Present-day politicians and corporate executives often react to criticism in much the same way. They see negative articles in the media, read false allegations on Facebook and Twitter, and quickly decide these attacks require a response. Then, in their efforts to set the record straight or shut down the opposition, they draw more attention to the charges.

We’ve all heard the most egregious examples. A top Uber executive, angry at critical media coverage about the company, publicly threatened to target journalists who wrote negative stories. Uber had to apologize on his behalf.

Peoria, Ill., Mayor Jim Ardis sent a police unit to raid the home of a man running the parody Twitter account @Peoriamayor, which had fewer than 100 followers. National news of the raid did way more harm to the mayor’s image than did the Twitter account.

But those are people in need of anger management counseling, not crisis communication advice. The trickier and more common cases of overreacting to criticism occur when companies rush to make defensive press statements, post websites to debunk “common myths” or launch expensive ad campaigns that wind up exacerbating their reputation problem.

The urge to take action is understandable. Most large organizations subscribe to services that monitor the tone and intensity of news coverage and social media conversations. There is no shortage of carefully tracked negative material to cause one’s blood pressure to rise.

Press statements, fact-based websites, social media outreach and image advertising can be useful tools. But the key is knowing in advance whether the criticism will stick and whether the critic should be taken seriously. Then you can calibrate your response.

Calibration is particularly important when responding to social media buzz. Political campaigns have embraced a rapid-response strategy that says a negative charge must be answered in the same news cycle. But that policy should apply only when the charge sounds like it might be credible or when it comes from a respected or noteworthy source. The best communicators have learned when to speak up and when to shut up.

In crisis communications, “Speed does matter,” digital marketing expert John Bell wrote in a 2012 post. “But so does judgment. Not every flare-up in social media will accelerate to a full-blown crisis. The trick is to, of course, be ready, but also to keep a cool head and really listen and understand what is going on.” Communicators who learn their critics’ tactics and how much traction they’re getting with their message will know whether to respond immediately.

It’s particularly tempting to overreact when activist messages have countless “likes” on Facebook. But, as communications advisor Kieran Fagan points out in the WGC Common Sense blog, “Slacktivism isn’t activism, and ‘likes’ don’t mean actions.” New research indicates that if people declare their support for a cause publicly on social media, they may be less likely to donate to that cause later on. On the other hand, if their act of support is done more privately, they are more likely to follow up with higher levels of engagement.

Fagan suggests that companies are better off if they don’t take the bait, just state what they know to be true and are transparent about the issue. “A lot of online activism is little more than baiting — where an individual or group spreads misinformation or outright lies to earn attention for their cause. You don’t want to get into arguments with these individuals or groups.”

He says companies need to understand their own values and stick to them but also understand that there are consequences when they don’t capitulate to demands. If they listen well and are genuinely open to change, they also might come to realize that they have operating practices or policies that really do need to be addressed. “In many ways, this is simply good, old-fashioned responding to customer needs,” Fagan writes.

It’s hard not to take the bait, but if you do your homework, you might decide that doing nothing is a smart approach.

Years ago, I was working for an energy trade association that was under constant attack from a fringe activist group that believed energy prices were too high. We argued internally about whether to hold a press conference, produce a video news release or engage in other PR response tactics. Finally, I decided to call a reporter from a major newspaper and ask him what he thought about the group that was always a thorn in our side.

“Are you kidding?” he said. “Nobody listens to those guys.”

Comments? Email me.