What ‘no comment’ really means

On March 1, 2017

When it comes to issues management, more often than not there is a tension between the law maker and the communication expert.

The lawyer doesn’t want to ring alarm bells with stakeholders unnecessarily. The communicator wants to proactively provide information to build report, trust and goodwill.

A little game of give and take begins until a compromise is reached which often leaves the communicator feeling like an opportunity to strengthen relationships has been watered down to within an inch of its life.

In the case of crises that have reached the stage of litigation, already risk adverse lawyers dig their heels in even more, preferring to take the ‘say nothing’ approach otherwise risk losing the case for their clients.

Sadly, very often CEO’s and executives who find themselves trying to steer a company through this type of crisis are too vulnerable to question their lawyer’s advice.

But here’s the thing, even though a company in the midst of legal proceedings may think that the outcome of the court case means everything, it doesn’t.
It means everything to the lawyer, yes. After all, it’s not just their client at stake, it’s their own professional reputation.

But the reputation of the company is impacted not only by the outcome of legal proceedings but also, and to a higher degree, by the way it treats people during the crisis and any related investigations and court cases.

Saying nothing (although completely impractical), keeps lawyers comfortable that CEO’s won’t unintentionally release information that could have a negative impact on a case. But to the people who matter most to your organization, your clients, potential customers, shareholders, staff and suppliers it often sends a message that you’re hiding something.

You might say ‘no comment’, but the listener hears ‘I’m not being honest’. The perception is that you have reason to withhold the truth and this can have long-lasting, damaging impact on a company’s reputation well beyond the life of the court case.

If a company wins a court case, but has alienated its stakeholders by being cold, secretive and withdrawn throughout the legal proceedings, the dent in its shareholder value will cost more than any legal payout.

Even in the most tragic and emotional of crises, CEOs always have the option to be honest, open, warm and reflective. You can’t do this without communicating but you can communicate without impacting legal proceedings.

CEOs who choose this road, the road some lawyers would steer well clear of, have a much greater chance of continuing to do business no matter the legal outcome.