When saying nothing is best

The story that McDonald’s is to stop serving Heinz ketchup has been massive this week. In the UK, where we love our red sauce, the story was all over the media and must have caused some real headaches for the Heinz brand team.

In these circumstances, you would be forgiven for expecting our favourite ketchup company to come out fighting. In fact, their response has been to say nothing.

“As a matter of policy, Heinz does not comment on relationships with customers,” the ketchup-maker was reported as saying.

Why offer no comment? Without knowing the full background on the split it is difficult to say, though the fact that Heinz is now run by the former head of Burger King suggests this might have more to it than meets the eye. But it also raises an important question: is no response ever the best response?

There are lots of reasons why a brand or company may not want to get embroiled in a particular media story. Here’s five:

  1. When saying something will do more harm. In a crisis, the first and most important rule must be, as with doctors, to ‘do no harm’. You are already in the spotlight and providing a quick comment in response to immediate media enquiries before all the facts are known could create more issues than it solves. So the best policy must be to say nothing until you have something definitive to say.

  2. When commenting plays into your opponent’s hands. Brands are regularly drawn into rows that, even if they provide an effective reply, they are unlikely to come out of on top. This is the brand equivalent of the question: “when did you stop beating your wife?”. Before replying, companies need to consider whose agenda this issue is serving.

  3. When you are cannibalising your own message. Getting quoted in lots of media stories might seem like great PR but if it is not co-ordinated, you run the risk of diluting the effectiveness of your core messages. There’s only so much any of us can take in about a brand. Smart communicators will try and fill that space with as consistent a message as possible and avoid unnecessary distractions.

  4. When the issue isn’t significant. Brands, just like the rest of us, need to pick their battles. Getting criticism is an inevitable part of the daily life of most companies and responding to every single attack would be time consuming and reflect a degree of paranoia on the part of the comms team. If the issue isn’t significant and there are other bigger challenges to come, it might be best to ‘keep your powder dry’.

  5. When it’s time to move on. If your brand has been responsive on a particular media story, there comes a time when it is okay to try and move the debate on. Providing more commentary will only keep the issue alive. Companies need to be disciplined and ensure they themselves don’t provide more fuel for the media bonfire.

Of course, providing no response to a media enquiry or competitor attack also comes at a cost. Crisis managers caution against rash comments but they also appreciate the need for a quick response to stop unfair criticisms taking hold. In a world where, as Mark Twain said, “a lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes”, your first opportunity to comment might be the only chance for you to get ahead of the issue. Miss it and you are forever playing catch-up.

Failing to answer journalists’ calls rarely stops questions being asked, either. Indeed the sense that you have something to hide or are being evasive often provides great encouragement for journalists to dig deeper.

There is also a missed opportunity in providing no comment. Even around a difficult issue, there is a chance to land a couple of positive messages. If you are likely to be in the story anyway, why not be quoted saying something good?

All communicators are pre-disposed to want to explain, to narrate, to convince. Nine times out of ten, it is probably the right strategy, particularly if you have a good message to share. Most of the time but not always. Sometimes silence is still the best message of all.

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