Can Keeping Silent Be More Effective Than Talking?

Posted on October 20, 2010 by Comments Off

To be as cliché as possible, we as public relations professionals tell stories. We want to facilitate conversation. We want to engage with others. We want everyone to know our (and our client’s) story.

But what about the tried and true adage “silence is golden”? Can silence really work in public relations?

More often than not, remaining silent in the midst of a crisis situation can have disastrous implications (two words: Tiger Woods). Regardless of the situation or fault at hand, communicating transparently and honestly in the early stages of any crisis helps to control the dialogue and rhetoric around the crisis, in addition to minimizing reputational damage.

While glancing over POLITICO, I came across an article about Republican Congressman John Boehner’s recent news (or complete lack thereof…). Boehner, a frontrunner to become Speaker of the House should Republicans wrestle control of the House of Representatives from Democrats in two weeks, has completely disappeared from the media in the past weeks on advice from his communications team.

No national TV or network interviews, no campaign appearances, no news whatsoever.

Boehner is all but assured victory in his campaign for reelection, but Boehner’s status as “Speaker-in-waiting” and the current face of the Republican Party means much more to this election. In this current age of the never-ending political echo chamber, news sound bites and social media, Republicans know that one slip up from anyone as high profile as Boehner could cost them everything.

While it might seem ill-advised on the surface to self-impose a media blackout of sorts in the days leading up to a pivotal election, in reality it’s a calculated and well-advised political decision given the circumstances. From early on, Republicans have taken the spotlight off of their own ideas and successfully framed this election as a referendum on Democrats. While the media has been so focused on back-wheeling Democrats, why would Boehner jump in the middle of that conversation and risk a slip up?

From a political standpoint, Boehner’s silent treatment to the media is setting himself and Republicans up for a successful November, but what should communications professionals make of it? Clearly politics and public affairs are different arenas than those like consumer products or social innovation. While the silent treatment might work in one situation, it could easily have disastrous results in another.

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