Resist trying to fill the void

Those wishing to defend their brand would do well to remember the standard police caution.

A number of London's August 2011 rioters will have been halted by the boys (and girls) in blue reciting the standard caution: 'You do not have to say anything. But it may harm your defence if you do not mention something that you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence.'

Any spokesperson looking to defend their brand would do well to ponder these three sentences.

'You do not have to say anything.' True, but in the vast majority of cases you really should, or someone else will say it for you.

But what if it's not entirely clear who's under attack and why? Currys and JD Sports looked and probably felt like they were under attack. But viewers could see it was their shops and not their brands getting damaged.

As a rule of thumb, if any other brands 'could' comment and missiles are not aimed directly at your brand, think twice before entering the fray. This wisdom was well illustrated by the very limited statements from companies leaving the Government's controversial 'back to work' scheme.

Should you speak if your brand is drawing fire on an issue affecting an entire industry? Ask if your brand is somehow more deserving of criticism. Is there a danger the woes of an entire industry will be laid at your door?

It's important to understand the potential costs as well as the benefits of showing industry leadership.

Unscrupulous competitors may cautiously capitalise on your short-term pain while simultaneously benefitting from a cleared-up industry issue.

In those situations, you'll often see beleaguered brands asking trade organisations to speak on their behalf.

'It may harm your defence if you do not mention something that you later rely on in court.' Punishment from the court of public opinion is immediate and often harsh. Failure to acknowledge fair criticism makes it harder to address later: 'We've now fixed that thing we said wasn't a problem.'

The really tough part is rapidly assessing how real, how damaging and how public the issue is. Sometimes it's easy. Tony Blair immediately denied the Iraq/JP Morgan accusation from a protester, almost before Leveson had finished apologising for the security breach. A lawyer-checked denial 24 hours after the outburst would have been almost worthless.

'Anything you do say may be given in evidence.' On the record means just that and it may come back to haunt you as the story unfolds. Also, what if there is a real court case pending and your lawyers are advocating silence to keep their powder dry?

You must balance legal success against the potential for reputational damage. If you do speak, choose your words carefully and don't be too quick to judge.

Keeping your CEO silent can on occasion be the right strategy. Currys was smart to push the local angle with store manager Andy Noble rather than fielding the CEO who might be expected to deliver wider comment and blame.

So, a year on, some banged-up rioters may now be preparing to talk to the parole board. They had better be ready to show how they have mended their ways. Anniversaries of events that have damaged your brand can be a good way to show what's changed, but if they become an annual apology for the same crime they risk sustaining the bad news.

Brands that have done nothing wrong should be wary of using the anniversary to comment. Only jump on a bandwagon if you're certain it's moving in the right direction.

Rob Shimmin is managing director at Shimmin Brand Protection.


Which company's response to accusations of tax avoidance has been the most impressive?

Barclays has managed to maintain a dignified partial-silence, saying just enough to show its frustration with breached confidentiality, but resisting the urge to argue publicly the difference between tax efficiency and tax avoidance.

What is the best way to keep employees informed during a crisis?

Couple information with a call to action. I'm a fan of using line managers to make staff feel they've helped weather the storm simply by doing their day job.

From PRWeek's Crisis supplement, June 2012

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