Are there crises during which it is better for companies to stay silent?

Paul Gallagher of Burson-Marsteller and Christopher White of AirTran debate whether it is better for companies to stay silent during certain crises.

yes

Paul Gallagher MD, Burson-Marsteller

Manages the issues and advocacy practice at the firm and co-leads the crisis team in the US

Traditionally, litigation has been one area where companies have felt required to limit their communications and avoid saying anything that could factor into the legal proceedings.

However, there is another type of crisis where saying less, at least initially, might be better. I am thinking of situations where a single company is being pressured to confront the "externalities," or side effects, of their industry's business operations.

This is what packaged food and restaurant companies faced with trans fat, the phone and auto companies are confronting with distracted driving, and the beverage companies are tackling with the groundwater issue. These companies are not legally required to address these externalities (the exception is trans fat, which is now limited by law in several cities and states), but there is rising pressure by advocacy groups for them to do so.

In such cases, a company might be best served by limiting its communications and letting its industry/trade association or a reputable third party address the issue first. If one company steps out immediately, it risks sending the clear message to the advocates that it will serve as the poster child for the problem. As the famous trial lawyer Edward Bennett Williams once said, "It's the spouting whale that gets harpooned first."

Of course, relying on another entity is not an effective long-term option. In the short term, however, it might provide a company time to do several key things, such as evaluating how the crisis is unfolding; identifying key stakeholders; determining the appropriate amount of ownership the company should take of the issue; and soft sounding its industry partners as to their response strategies.

I'm not advocating a pass-the- buck strategy here. I'm arguing that in cases involving industry-wide or even society-wide issues, individual companies should consider holding their tongues while they formulate crisis response strategies.

There are instances where one company is so dominant or successfully branded, that it is the industry. What then? Can the company still remain silent in the face of an emerging crisis? All I can say is... no comment.

no

Christopher White PR director, AirTran

Has represented many companies in crises such as 9/11 and commercial aviation accidents

As a disciple of the transparency and accountability schools of PR, my answer is no.

In today's instant news world, losing control of the message is easier and more dangerous than ever. Not commenting is the best way to totally lose control of an issue and is a disservice to customers, staff, and the public.

While reporters are reaching out to you during a crisis, they are also reaching out to the so- called experts, your opposition, and others in your field. The first person to answer often wins the right to frame the issue.

That said, many instances arise in which you're legally and ethically obligated to greatly limit your comments. In these cases, such as an accident or security event, communicators have a responsibility to report only what they know factually. Straying beyond the absolutely known often leads to misunderstandings at best, factual errors, significant brand damage, and legal action at worst.

In highly regulated industries such as aviation, government agencies, including the National Transportation Safety Board, Federal Aviation Administration, and the FBI (in criminal events) play leading roles in incident response and accident investigation. Overstepping your role as the operator can have serious repercussions.

We as communicators have a responsibility to keep our customers, employees, and their families informed with factual information during a crisis.

Imagine sitting at home watching CNN or Fox News when suddenly the airplane your spouse or children are on is splashed across the screen with reports of mechanical trouble or a security incident onboard. Imagine being onboard and watching in-flight TV as your plane attempts an emergency landing (as happened to passengers several years ago).

In these situations, providing factual comments is not only the best way to represent your company, it's simply the right thing to do for all involved.

Providing factually accurate information in a chaotic world is something we should all take great pride in doing as professional communicators. It is also a core function of our role in PR.

Keeping silent amid crisis opens the door for misinformation and misperception. No matter the situation, it is always better to be proactive and implement a carefully planned communications strategy around a crisis.

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