• The Costs of "No Comment"
  • November 6, 2007 | Author: Adam W. Goldberg
  • Law Firm: Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP - Washington Office
  • Many public relations adages, such as "stay on message," are supported by social psychology studies into how people accept or reject information. In a study recently published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, Professor Peter Kim of the University of Southern California examined the effects of choosing not to comment in the face of alleged misconduct, revealing why not commenting is generally never the best response.

    Professor Kim focused his study on what he called the "reticence" (and what we call the "no comment") response: a statement in which an accused explains that he cannot or will not confirm or deny an allegation. In particular, the study compared the effect of the "no comment" response with an apology or a denial to either: (a) an integrity allegation (such as when a corporate officer is accused of intentionally engaging in wrongdoing); and (b) a competence allegation (such as when a corporate officer did something wrong because of inability as opposed to bad intent).

    The Kim-led study had three main findings:

    1. A denial most effectively restored trust levels after an integrity violation.
    2. An apology best restored trust levels after a competence violation.
    3. The "no comment" response was never the best; that is, the "no comment" response was about as effective as an apology in response to an integrity violation, or as a denial in response to a competence violation.

    What's the study's take-away? As the authors state, "[d]espite the fact that reticence is a legitimate and often necessary form of response, our study suggests that the deck is stacked against those who use it....[A]ttempts to use reticence strategically will generally be self-defeating." The authors also note that "legal advisors often advise their clients to remain silent when accused of criminal or civil misconduct. Although this strategy may be advisable for winning the legal case, in many situations the accused has more at stake than just the legal outcome. In particular, the accused party's relationship with the violated party and reputation with third parties and even the general public may also be at stake. Our study may help legal advisors and their accused clients better recognize the collateral costs of using reticence to fight a legal case."

    Interestingly, the authors did not address scenarios in which one cannot deny an integrity violation because it actually occurred, or when one cannot apologize for a competence violation because it actually did not occur. At such times, one must choose between the two worst responses, which are similarly less effective at restoring trust. Given this and the potential legal concerns with saying anything, why not choose the "no comment" response in these scenarios?

    While the study does not help with this question, we believe Crisis Management 101 provides the answer. Choosing reticence will almost always prolong a crisis and uncertainty, while an apology or a denial always involves providing information and taking fuel away from additional stories. The "no comment" response, on the other hand, provides much more fertile ground for the drip-drip-drip of information that gives stories the legs to continue into multiple news cycles. Thus, from a crisis management perspective, one should attempt to end the crisis as soon as possible with an appropriate denial or apology because "no comment" will only help prolong it.