PAUL HOLMES: The past year has taught us that saying the wrong thing can make a bad situation worse

"It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one's mouth and remove all doubt," Voltaire wrote. Rarely have those words seemed more timely or more profound than they did last year, when the dumb things people in the news did were eclipsed by the dumb things they said.

"It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one's mouth and remove all doubt," Voltaire wrote. Rarely have those words seemed more timely or more profound than they did last year, when the dumb things people in the news did were eclipsed by the dumb things they said.

Trent Lott is only the most recent example. Lott should never have opened his mouth at Strom Thurmond's retirement bash in the first place, but the initial gaffe was not nearly as embarrassing as the seemingly unending stream of apologies as the former majority leader vainly sought to find the words to appease his critics and hold onto his job.

Long before Lott made his strange and unbelievable assertion that he is now a supporter of affirmative action, it was apparent that his opponents would not be mollified and that his groveling was alienating his staunchest supporters. Why couldn't he just tell the truth? "I wasn't making a political statement; I was just trying to find something nice to say to an old, retiring colleague."

Of course, the Democrats had some problems of their own, turning the funeral of liberal Senator Paul Wellstone into a partisan political rally that ended up costing them his old seat.

Others who should have remained silent include 60 Minutes icon Andy Rooney, who suggested that the possession of a uterus was incompatible with sports reporting; Mrs. Ken Lay, whose whining about her husband's poverty rang as true as the complaints of a child who kills his parents and then pleads for mercy on the grounds that he's an orphan; and all those Wall Street executives who never spoke their words out loud but instead committed them to e-mail, where they stuck around waiting for Eliot Spitzer to discover them and share them with the rest of us.

Finally, we'd like to hear a little less from the government of Saudi Arabia. It would take a public relations campaign of uncommon genius to persuade Americans that they should embrace an undemocratic, unenlightened nation that treats its women as second-class citizens and harbors both terrorists and the kidnappers of American children. And it became apparent that genius was not to be a hallmark of the country's efforts when major media splashed a story detailing just how much the Saudis were spending on their propaganda efforts.

If you're trying to con someone, it's probably not a good idea to tell them how you plan to do it.

So if the public relations industry is looking for a New Year's resolution, I suggest it remembers that sometimes "no comment" is the best communications strategy, especially if you don't have anything intelligent to say.

  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 15 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.

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