• Author:Ben Jones
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Making a statement; hitting back or hitting yourself?

Something has hit your organisation. It could be a critical press story. A barbed dig at you on the Today Programme. Perhaps it’s an unhelpful comment in Parliament by a senior MP or member of a key select committee. Maybe the government has not followed through on a promise it made to you or has done the opposite of something it said it would do. You’re possibly seeing the start of a social media storm with folk questioning your competence. Alarm bells go off. The CEO is not happy. The Chair is ranting. Board members are emailing asking what’s going on. In short, there is noise. And it’s annoying. Very annoying. It’s a communication crisis.

The pressure to respond is often intense. Tempers are running high. Egos are bruised. Professional pride is damaged. Something must be done. We can’t stand for this. We must hit back.

I have lost count of the times when this happens that I’ve been called into the office of the CEO, Chair, etc and had to listen to them read out a statement they have prepared, often “on the train coming in to the office”. This instinct to punch back is a natural human one – you are under attack so you have three options – fight, flight or freeze. For comms people we need to ensure a fourth option is discussed – fink. Sorry – think. I couldn’t find something that fit to began with ‘f’!

The thinking needs to take two forms. Before you put pen to paper with a statement of response there are two questions; should we respond? If we respond, should we do it publicly or privately? Then, and only then, if you have decided to respond do you start writing down what you want to say. Like so much in communications, this all seems painfully straightforward and yet so often the CEO’s “I’ve scribbled down a few thoughts” bandwagon is already hurtling down the road, cleaning out everything in its path and is past the point of being stopped by the time the thinking is done.

In these crisis moments, comms people earn their money. It is at these times where the comms folk need to be strong and challenging – whilst always – as I have written here before – be in the business of looking for solutions and answers and not just saying “I wouldn’t do that if I was you”.

When considering whether to respond the key is to think about what are you trying to achieve. Is it about correcting an inaccuracy or unfairness that others may repeat and so it needs niping in the bud? Is it an isolated criticism that will only gather pace and “get legs” if you respond? Will it prolong the story by responding? Will it open up more questions that are harder to respond to? Is it a good use of your time – not in writing the statement but in dealing with the follow up that may arise from issuing the statement?

In short, is this a storm in a teacup that will pass and you should let pass? Maybe it’s time to take a few deep breaths and count to ten. Often the way that organisations get off message and off track from their key objectives is to by getting distracted by trivia – it is important in message terms to stay focused on your your story and your agenda – sometimes saying nothing is the best policy.

Each situation is different and will require a different response – or not – but it must be properly thought through and properly discussed.

BTW, this is very, very different to receiving a media question where you have been asked a direct question about your organisation or your view. I need some persuading that “no comment” is the right answer, ever. In my experience it very, very rarely is.

Having decided that you want to respond, the question then is whether it is a public or private response. This goes back to how strong your relationships are with the journalist or stakeholders, or more importantly those who may be influenced by the original criticism. It can often work much better if you can smooth things in private, rather than in public when everyone sees you taking the bait or be seen to be hitting back with criticism of your own. You can look petulant. Sometimes you do need to say something in public – sometimes it’s important to be seen to respond; by your staff, the Board, shareholders or others. The question of how public you are is again a question of what do you want to achieve and every situation is different. Sometimes a public display of frustration is necessary to show you will not be pushed around but at other times it may alienate key stakeholders you may need in the future.

In the cases where you have decided to issue a response the next decision is to agree what will you say; what is your response. There are pitfalls to avoid here which may organisations fall into.

How you speak in your statement or response should be how you speak. What? Well, I have often been passed a draft statement to review and found it written in a different tone of voice to the normal press, media or other communications lines. This is because people feel this new crisis needs a new tone. Something grave and serious. Something reflecting the dark times we are now in……“We are dismayed/bitterly disappointed/deeply saddened/ distressed etc. Wrong. It needs to sound like your organisation. It doesn’t need to sound like you are appearing in a Shakespearian tragedy.

It needs to be read out loud – several times – before it is sent to the CEO/Chair etc for sign off. Actually, this is a rule with all statements, press lines etc. It needs to be something that a human being, preferably the person whose name the statement is in, would say. It also needs to sound like the person themselves – using language they would use. I always ask my media team colleagues to imagine walking out of the front door of the building and reading this statement out loud to the waiting press. If it doesn’t sound right, it isn’t right.

The overall concern with issuing statement in response to something – usually bad news – is to be clear what you want to achieve and how it will look the next day, the next week, the next year. Like the quickly written email rushed off when someone has annoyed you, the speedily-issued and later-regretted press statement is a communication sin. An overriding question worth asking is whether this is a battle worth fighting. As has been said many times, sometimes it’s not what you say that matters, it’s what you don’t say.

The key thing – like all things in life – is to think (fink) before you act.