If something goes horribly wrong, what is a CEO to do? One thing best avoided is the “no comment” response. By Dwayne Alexander.
“No comment” is the reflexive response from leaders in business and politics when asked a question they cannot, or dare not, answer. It’s been used for decades – so what’s wrong with it? Well, it’s virtually never useful in the face of a difficult or leading question from a journalist, blogger or influencer.
Sometimes it’s difficult to comment because of timing, commercial sensitivity or legal or regulatory considerations, but the upshot is that the best response is a meaningful one.
So, how to achieve your business objectives and satisfy a journalist?
1. Never say “no comment”: If a journalist cannot extract more than that from a company spokesperson, they will go to other sources to fill the space and the company has no control; this risks inaccurate, speculative or misleading coverage.
2. If you can’t answer a question, say why: It is appropriate to acknowledge what the matter is and what the company’s role is and then draw a line with a message of (for example): “We will not be commenting further while the case is before the courts / we do not comment publicly on the affairs of our clients.” When these types of quotes are used in media, audiences understand the company’s position and the reason for the limited comment.
3. Have a basic strategy for media approaches: Journalists are time-poor and will most often put through a call or email. Train all staff as to how to respond. If it’s a call, be courteous, ask for the journalist’s deadline and their questions in writing, and undertake to get back to them. For emails, ensure you have one or two ‘point’ people who receive media enquiries and can triage them. Above all, never leave a journalist hanging. If they want information that you can provide but need a day or two to collate, explain that. It’s their responsibility to negotiate deadlines with their editor once you’ve made clear what you can do.
4. Prepare for the worst: Part of the mandate of a CEO and board is to have a plan for what can go wrong. Make a list of the top five to 10 risks facing your business. For example, if you’re running a financial services company, is there a chance of a staff member committing fraud or theft, or of the company falling foul of the FMA? Make a plan for each scenario and how you would handle it internally and externally. This preparation should include comprehensive media training for whomever might be called upon to speak for the company now and in the foreseeable future.
5. Fight back or front up: If a troublesome line of questioning can only have been seeded by a competitor, an open approach can work well. Journalists can be disarmed and better informed by being invited for a personal tour of a work site with a CEO. For example, the leaders of a fintech company might invite a tech journalist to see a real-time display of the proprietary software that has been disparaged by a rival. If the line of questioning is warranted, and there is a company failure or mistake, own up to it as much as possible, and if there are aspects you can’t talk about, explain why. Ducking and diving is a disastrous approach in the digital media age.
Crises are just as much about how you react as about the event itself. How does your company balance the ledger?
• Do you need to apologise or make reparations?
• Can you invest time in improving your business and giving back to affected communities?
• Can you create cultural change in your business?
• Have you considered how to turn the crisis into a way to help others?
• Draw a line under the event and once you have a plan, put it behind you.
Dwayne Alexander is the global practice leader at Alexander PR, an affiliate of the global Burson Cohn & Wolfe group. It specialises in reputation management, issues and crisis preparation and response.