Recall a few weeks back when Spin Sucks featured a post called "How 'No Comment' Has Edelman in Trouble." It revealed how both Edelman and Best Buy dropped the ball on having someone on-hand and well-versed to discuss the new video program they were launching. Though the situation could have been handled far better than it was, and it is incumbent on large organizations either giving their people talking points or appoint a spokesperson early on, I was expecting a different article than the one to which I clicked through. I was expecting something more like the one you're about to read.
As the public relations manager for Blinds.com, I don't often get a chance to use my crisis communications skills like I would were I working for Nestle or Toyota in the last few years. Sure, window treatment-related emergencies present themselves ("I can't sleep, it's too bright in my bedroom!" and "We have odd-shaped windows!"), but as an organization, we don't often find ourselves in controversial situations. That changed one day after one of the national radio hosts we advertise with made salacious comments live on-air. Members of the media were up in arms, demanding this person's resignation, and because of our association to the show, we were caught in the middle. I began receiving hateful emails, demanding we revoke sponsorship. I was less than surprised to receive a voicemail from the head writer for an online publication/activist group that "reports" on matters such as this. He just wanted a quote.
Hearken back to freshman English. Your professor asks you to write a dissertation on some abstruse Shakespeare reference, and you spend the next twenty, double-spaced pages scraping together every possible piece of evidence that supports the claim you've come up with. Speaking to someone who has an agenda to further is sort of like that. He will use what you say to support his claims, even if you do not mean it the way he's spliced together.
Knowing this, I thought, "Hey! My first 'No comment' moment!" He sounded like a nice enough fellow, and I thought, "Why not call him back?"
Before doing so, I consulted a friend and former boss of mine who works with the Ammerman Experience, an organization that specializes in media training and communications. His advice to me:
"NEVER, EVER SAY 'NO COMMENT.'"
It seems obvious after the fact, but "no comment" is, in and of itself, a comment. By not answering the questions, you're answering. You can also spend all the time in the world crafting a statement, but some people will believe what they want to believe if they're trying to make an example out of you, and it is often better not to pick up the phone in the first place.
I never did return that writer's call. I knew what he wanted from me: Something he could use in his article to help him further the boycott he was trying to incite against the sponsors of this host. I did get a Google alert soon after for one of many articles this man wrote on the topic. It featured innocuous quotes from other retailers which, in the context of the story, seemed scandalous. And about Blinds.com? "Blinds.com could not be reached for comment." Very quickly, the situation blew over, as newer, juicier scandals presented themselves to the world.
While I'm definitely not advocating for hiding from the press when you're in a tough situation, there is merit to taking the high road when you simply can never win and will never be given a fair shot to explain the situation. By doing so, we avoided making a bad situation worse. There is a big difference between talking to a reporter who's trying to uncover the truth and talking to someone like this. You don't have to talk to everyone.
Maybe next time when someone calls me about something controversial, I'll just answer a completely different question than the one I've been asked, though I have to give credit to Edelman for that strategy.
Esther Steinfeld is the public relations manager for Blinds.com, the premier online retailer of custom window treatments. Esther specializes in online PR and blogs about home décor trends at The Finishing Touch. Blinds.com currently ranks #206 on the Internet Retailer 500 and holds the title American Marketing Association Marketer of the Year.