As a communicator, I appreciate the power of silence. It’s a golden rule of my profession that, when one is asked a difficult question, a response of silence is considered a sign of guilt, indecision, or apathy. PR experts warn about a communications vacuum, that someone else’s voice will be heard and the narrative will change. However, silence can be the right choice, especially when it focuses the dialogue on a singular issue and makes those engaged in the conversation think hard about what they’re discussing. Silence can promote the right type of HardTalk.
So, when is silence the right option?
- When others are defending you – You don’t always need to answer back, especially when you’re being criticised for issues that are questionable. If you’ve spent time building both a network and a reputation, others will come to your aid who’ll fire back and speak on your behalf. A strategy of silence can be the best course of action here; any response from your side may only amplify the negative attention and fuel greater criticism.
- Don’t respond to anonymous trolls – You don’t need to respond to every single person out there, especially when you’re being trolled by people who are out to harm you. Any significant response may only embolden those who are making false claims. In this situation, silence preserves your integrity. You and your team must understand the difference between a troublemaking voice with no following/reputation and a legitimate customer or influencer.
- And don’t take on bigger bullies – It’s also often not worth engaging with influential critics who command the attention of the mainstream media. If you believe that a response will lead to amplification, then don’t respond, especially if the critic has a history of moving on quickly to other issues.
- When you have nothing else to say – If you’ve said your piece, stop. It’s a well-worn tactic by journalists (and others) to use silence to keep the second person talking. Many people find silence awkward, and they’ll continue talking, even when they’ve answered the question. If you want to keep the conversation focused on a singular issue, stop talking and let the other person respond.
And when should you respond?
- When you want to set the tone – In today’s always-on world, where it seems everyone is online, all the time, there’s more pressure to move fast. If you don’t move fast enough, then others will speak on your behalf. If you want to set the narrative, get ahead of the problem and solve it, then raise your voice and don’t stay silent.
- When those that you care about are asking the questions – You may not care about everyone out there, especially every troll or critic online. However, when your shareholders, customers, and your employees, start to ask hard questions, that is the time to talk and engage in conversation. The act of listening and then responding to their concerns underlines that you care about them, it signals that you’re addressing the issues, and it reinforces that you are responsive. In contrast, silence would not only suggest you’re tone deaf, but it’d also signal that you have something to hide.
When used wisely, silence can improve both how and why you communicate. However, if you don’t respond at the right time and with the right audience, your silence will convey an unintended message. Think carefully about how you use the power of silence, especially when you are in need of a HardTalk.
Former journalist Alex Malouf has carved out a niche as a lively voice in the Middle East’s burgeoning media scene, combining razor-sharp observations with a keen understanding of the forces that underpin the region’s digital transformation. Much of which, no doubt, is informed by Malouf’s day job at P&G, where he manages reputational affairs for the Middle East’s largest FMCG. Malouf’s experience and roots in the region are not the only things that set him apart — he is also a highly visible advocate for modern public relations, serving in senior roles on numerous industry organisations.