When Is No Response the Right Response?
In a recent interview in Sports Illustrated, former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman expressed regret for not having responded publicly to an allegation made about him years ago by sports columnist, author and TV personality Skip Bayless. The allegation, which appeared in a 1996 book authored by Bayless, dealt with Aikman’s sexual preference.
Said Aikman, “I am probably more upset because I probably should have responded to it at the time it was going on. The advice to me was, ‘Hey, just don’t address it. It’s not worth it. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s ridiculous. All it’s going to do is have people continue to talk about his book.’ So I didn’t. But I probably could have responded differently and maybe that would have changed things.”
Aikman’s comment got us wondering about the wisdom of not responding (especially through the traditional news media) to something that’s negative and is getting or may get widespread media coverage. Bill Cosby currently seems to be using this strategy amid multiple allegations of past sexual misconduct.
Most readers of this newsletter probably know The Ammerman Experience was one of the pioneers in media training. We know that cooperating with the news media, including talking to reporters, makes sense – for a lot of reasons. But there are times when a “no response” strategy may be best.
Here are some things to consider when making a decision about whether to engage with the news media:
- Is the issue at hand serious or frivolous? Some of what’s offered as “news” today is filler. News outlets need material to fill the page or broadcast. It’s possible that viewers or readers may see the story for what it is – empty, and not take it seriously. Not responding is the media strategy equivalent of the statement, “I’m not going to dignify that comment with a response.” Carefully and objectively assess the situation you find yourself in. Remove emotion from your decision. Avoid a knee-jerk reaction.
- What’s the credibility of your “accuser” or the media outlet reporting the “accusation?” If it’s suspect, the best approach may be to keep silent.
- What’s the likely “shelf-life” of the story? You’ve heard the expression that some stories have “legs” – meaning, they’ll be around awhile. If your assessment is that your story doesn’t have legs, you may want to ignore it.
- Are you really involved in the issue, and if so, what’s your level of involvement? Sometimes, reporters just need someone – anyone – to speak on behalf of some issue. So a reporter calls your company. If you’re not involved in that issue, politely decline. If you’re marginally involved, it may be best to defer to a company with greater involvement.
- Are you the subject of rumors? The best strategy is not to comment on rumors – regardless of whether they are negative or positive, true or untrue. In fact, tell the reporter that not commenting on rumors is company policy.
- Are there legal implications? Speaking publicly could have legal ramifications, which is why many people rarely comment beyond the traditional, “That matter is in litigation, so it would be inappropriate for me to comment at this time.” This approach makes sense, although some lawyers are increasingly using the media to try to influence the outcome of a trial.
- Is using social media a better option? Sometimes addressing an issue through the traditional news media is the wrong approach. For example, if an adversary posts something negative about your company on Facebook, rather than issuing a press release and running the risk of blowing the issue out of proportion or expanding its reach, maybe your best bet is to respond on Facebook. That way, you target the audience that may have seen the posting.
Knowing whether to engage with the news media is one of the toughest challenges in media relations. (Knowing what to say is another.) The right decision is not always obvious. But success rides on carefully weighing all factors before acting.