Communicating: You Have the Right to Remain Silent

Sticks and stones may indeed break your bones but was it ever really true that "words will never hurt you?" These days everyone has an opinion to share. And when you read or listen to what you consider to be unfair criticism about your business, it's not easy to resist the urge to respond quickly. But it's important to understand just how interactive the flow of communication has now become and how quickly your response can unintentionally throw fuel on barely-burning embers.

If your business involves selling products or services to the public, the Internet now provides your customers a wealth of online forums to tell the world what they think. And unfortunately human nature is such that most people are more motivated to post comments when they're unhappy rather than when they're satisfied.

Back when mass media provided the only effective route for reaching millions of people quickly, the process of managing reputation was much easier because communication to large groups of people was primarily one direction: tightly controlled and more easily managed. Reporters and editors were easily identifiable. Publishers and broadcasters were the gatekeepers of the flow of information. Now the Internet has given that power to many and the anonymity of social media magnifies that power.
The first reaction when someone says something damaging to your company's products or reputation is to respond quickly, "get out in front of the story" as communications experts often advised in the past. That was an effective strategy back when the clock ticked a lot slower on a typical news cycle. These days, that's not necessarily the case in a world of instant back-and-forth where stories can easily spin out of control and take on a life of their own.

As in all business communication, the thinking and strategizing beforehand is more important than anything you actually write or say. Does it even make sense to respond? Many times a response--especially from an established company or source--will just give the initial comments more visibility and respectability. As the anonymity of the Internet has helped to make hate speech more ubiquitous, that pervasiveness has also made the public less influenced by random comments and more suspicious of sources of information.

That's why waiting to see if a negative story gets traction can often be the best initial response. The sheer volume of news and information that make it so difficult to proactively deliver messages to target audiences has also had the beneficial effect of making it equally difficult for bad news to break through the clutter.

Thinking about writing privately to the person who posted the comments? Be prepared to see your message, letter or even a recording of a phone call posted online. Contacting the hosting platform to complain about a violation? In most cases, the person who wrote the original post will receive a notice of the complaint and that too can quickly end up online.

If nothing else, avoid the urge to respond in anger or haste. The internet is littered with screen shots and archives of tweets and emails which senders furiously tried to delete or bury after they were sent. You have the right to remain silent and, often, that may be the best response of all.