Silence isn’t always golden

Last week, I ran up against a situation that’s only too common in the business – a potentially negative story about a vendor who wouldn’t seize the opportunity to turn it into a neutral, if not positive, article by co-operating with the writer. (That would be me.)

Yes, it’s

self-serving for me to say that vendors should be open and forthcoming when they’re asked delicate questions. It makes my job easier. But the fact is, not addressing them does not make them go away. The story will run, with or without you, with apologies to U2 fans everywhere.

 The case in point this time was the story on Business Objects’ classroom licence agreement. Long story short, businesses that train Crystal Reports users face a one-time charge of $4,000 or $20,000 to use their software to train others. Users and trainers called it a cash grab.

This was unusual in that it was very much a grassroots story. It was the several users and trainers quoted in the story – readers who approached us — who made it work.

 Naturally, I wanted Business Objects to have their say, not only in the interest of fairness and balance, but also because it would make for a better story.

 Hitch 1: The point person for educational alliances refused point-blank on the phone to talk to me. To paraphrase: I can’t talk to you about it. Nobody does that. “I have worked for four large IT vendors and in every case information required for articles must go through the company’s communications department,” she e-mailed later.

 But people in this business do talk to the press – all the time. We put out four or five stories a day on www.itbusiness.ca; we couldn’t do that if people didn’t talk to us. However, the corporate communications route isn’t uncommon.

 The communications department was forwarded a list of questions. A week later, there was a reply – an obviously prepared statement that addressed one-half of one of the five preliminary questions asked. A follow-up e-mail and phone call on deadline didn’t produce any more relevant response.

 So what did that leave me? Four and a half questions raised by one side and not answered by the other. But the story had to run anyway. Could it have been more balanced? Possibly – but not without the vendor being willing to communicate its side of the story.

 When a story like this arises, there are several tacks a company can take:

 1. Ignore it and hope it will go away. (It won’t, BTW: We need stories. It’s what we do.)

2.  Issue a terse “no comment.” (Preferable to No. 1, but only slightly. Politely phrased and given some context – “We can’t discuss personnel issues,” for example – it’s better than nothing.)

3.  Treat the story as an opportunity, not a threat.

 Becoming an active participant in the story gives you an element of control over the outcome. Pick a strategy: concerned and engaging (“Yes, we’ve heard concerns expressed about that. We’re looking into it”); polite but firm (“Actually, I’d disagree – and I’ll tell you why …”); hell, come out swinging – we love that.

 As long as there are marketing classes, the response to the Tylenol poisonings of the 1980s will be textbook material. This was crisis communications at its finest: several people died, there was hysteria in the drug stores, and the parent company took charge, took responsibility and took an even greater market share after the crisis.

 Let’s not equate a little computer training dispute with random, murderous poisonings of a product. But the lesson is: engagement is control; a defensive posture leaves the story in the hands of other sources. When the train leaves the station, be on it, or you’ll have no voice in the discussion about where it ends up.

 Speak now. Don’t forever hold your peace.

 dwebb@itbusiness.ca

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