Many people outside of the communications or public relations practice often associate the role of the communicator solely with speaking publicly and/or to employees about matters relating to or affecting our companies. But the reality is, our jobs are just as much about speaking as they are about not speaking.
Deciding whether or not to speak is the first step, and choosing what to say comes next — determining the company’s message and communicating it.
By the way, when I say, “not speaking,” I don’t mean giving “no comment” on an issue. That’s speaking but being unhelpful — and it comes with its own problems, but that’s a topic for another day. What I mean is literally not speaking. Remaining quiet or choosing to talk about specific topics but not others.
Here are a few scenarios where you may want to think carefully about whether to speak:
- When the future activity, investment or results are not 100% confirmed or depend on factors outside of your control.
This one is a no-no. It directly impacts your company’s integrity if you can’t deliver on a promise or if previously communicated results are found to be wrong. It’s tough — sometimes the business leader is absolutely certain that the investment will happen. But, as you know, sometimes things may appear surer than they are.
My advice here is straightforward: If it isn’t written and signed, please don’t speak.
- When communicating could potentially stir up unwanted attention.
- Here’s a scenario: A huge issue is unfolding in your industry or sector. It’s negative, but, fortunately, it’s not about your company. However, in the early stages, you are mentioned (although, just barely) as one of the companies operating in that sector, or maybe bidding for that business, but with no allegations.
This one is tricky. The natural human instinct is to come out and clear yourself, smugly stating that you aren’t one of the bad guys. In my experience, I have found (sadly) that commenting, however positively, associates the company with that issue while it’s brewing. Placing the company’s name in that mix could potentially backfire.
In this instance, before you get to the front, it would be wise to determine the pros and cons of speaking — and if it’s the right time.
- When it doesn’t meet the company’s objectives.
The fact that a topic is of personal interest doesn’t mean you should engage on behalf of the company. I once saw a cringeworthy video of a clearly inexperienced country manager of a big multinational, standing by his company’s logo, congratulating a celebrity friend who hit one million followers on social media — true story.
What people do in their own time and capacity is largely their business, but what an executive says on behalf of the company should have a clear objective.
- When the company is legally required not to comment.
OK, I guess this one is obvious. For example, it’s important not to speak when a matter is in court or if it’s a company’s “quiet period” — the four weeks prior to the close of the business quarter when company executives are forbidden to speak to the public about the business in order to avoid giving details that would amount to insider information. Also, this rule applies when a company is issuing an initial public offering (IPO).
- When asked about a competing company.
Commenting on a competitor’s business operations is, at best, tacky, but it could move into the realm of potential legal action if the comment is negative. You are not an authority on another company’s actions.
Except when it involves a significant social issue, my advice is to keep your comments to yourself.
- When it involves religion and politics.
I’m all for companies taking a stand on an issue, but endorsing a political candidate’s ideology or saying something negative about a religion is hardly ever appropriate. Steer clear.
- When it’s more important to respect a person’s privacy and/or dignity.
This comes up often in an internal employee communication context, but it sometimes occurs in external communications, too: For example, when an employee is dismissed or leaves a company under unpleasant circumstances.
Remember the old saying: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all!”
Reputation is built on people’s perceptions. You can influence or shape a company’s reputation by creating positive perceptions about the company. Saying the right thing in the right place at the right time always helps. Not saying the wrong thing is even more helpful. And sometimes, not speaking at all can make a world of difference.