Tony Jaques, Director of Issue Outcomes Pty Ltd, is both colleague and friend. Writing from Australia, he offers solid advice about when to speak – and when not to speak. Let’s see what he has to say…
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.
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