LA LA LA I am not listening...

Posted on 23 November

Charlie argues that during some crises it is best not to listen to the angry voices attacking you, but to keep quiet and weather the storm, which will quickly dissipate.


This week I have been in the Caribbean where the main TV stations are American, so I have been watching a lot of CNN. Not particularly because I like CNN, but because I am fascinated by their coverage of Donald Trump. Over the last couple of days, there has been wall-to-wall coverage of his spat with US Chief Justice John Roberts. Donald Trump has been complaining that there are Obama judges who are making the country more unsafe by ruling against his migrant asylum order. John Roberts replied saying "We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges. What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them. That independent judiciary is something we should all be thankful for." Although it is unusual that a Chief Justice would speak out about the President, Donald Trump’s frustration with the judiciary, especially when he is thwarted in trying to implement orders, is not new news.

According to CNN, it was a huge story, with 12 hours of the same piece of news being branded “breaking news” and a mass of talking heads giving their learned opinions on the significance of the story. The story was not massive news, but the way it was covered by CNN made it appear to be a huge story, so viewers would stay glued to the channel.

In a similar way, this weekend the BBC pushed a huge story of the coup against Theresa May. They gave minute coverage of events as they unfolded, as each letter was written and delivered to the Conservative 1922 Committee, and there was much speculation the Prime Minister would be out of a job by Sunday night. The story fizzled out by Tuesday and they are now trying to find new sensational stories in an attempt to keep us hooked.

In these two instances, the coverage of the story tells us more about TV channels trying to keep us watching their news than about the actual story. The media sensationalising stories to sell newspapers or TV advertising is not new, but, in crisis response terms, we need to see the stories in context. If it is our organisation or brand they are taking about, it may be because it is a huge story, but it may be that there is no other news and this is the best story they are going to get. If they start to run the story, once they have reported the facts, they need it to move forward, otherwise there is nothing new to report and nothing for them to hook in their viewers. So, if there are no more events or reactions from the organisation involved, they will have to move on to another story. One of the ways to kill a story is to keep quiet after the initial response. If you don’t comment, there is nothing new to report and the story will die.

In the same way, the coverage of an event by the media is as much about the media as the importance of the story. There have been a couple of stories in the news that reinforced my idea of keeping quiet, holding your nerve and not engaging with those criticising you during a crisis. The editor of Waitrose Food magazine, William Sitwell, resigned recently after mocking vegans and suggesting to a journalist that he should do a piece in the magazine exposing their “hypocrisy” and joking that they should be force-fed meat. There was a major outcry after this piece from vegans and hence the editor resigned. In the same way a feminist poster in Liverpool, which featured only six words: “Woman, women, noun, adult human female” was taken down after a campaign by Adrian Harrop, a Twitter activist and NHS doctor, who complained that the poster made transgender people feel unsafe. He successfully demanded its removal after lobbying the chief executive and senior directors of the billboard company on social media, accusing them of being complicit “in the spread of transphobic hate speech”.

My personal theory on the two cases is not about the slight felt by vegans and transgender people, but is all about campaigners finding a perceived slight and using it as an excuse to raise their profile, flex their muscles and win what they see as a major victory, further publicising their cause. Sometimes the outrage and social media frenzy is not about your brand, you just happened to do or say something which angers a militant group and they use the event to further their cause. If you feel you are in the right, ignore them, or if you are in the wrong, apologise sincerely and then keep quiet. Hold your nerve and they will quickly move on to their next victim.

What matters in these cases is your understanding of your stakeholders and the impact of any media and social media campaigns against you. As I have mentioned in previous bulletins, you should have mapped out your organisation’s champions, friends, obstacles and grumblers. This will give you a very good idea about the audiences your organisation is concerned about. As soon as the crisis breaks, you need to quickly map which audiences are saying what and whether the stakeholders you care about are receiving or joining in posting negative comments about your organisation. You could have lots of negative comments about your organisation in a national newspaper, but if your stakeholders are likely to read a local newspaper and listen to local news, you need to be less concerned.

Many crises, especially those conducted over social media, can draw in vast audiences across the world who will be commenting, shouting or even issuing death threats against you and your family. Although it is not pleasant to receive death threats and hate on social media, you need to look at who is doing it. If they are your customers, you need to go into full crisis management mode. If they are a random assortment of the sad, bad and those with nothing better to do, ignore them. A little while ago I wrote a bulletin on the Grenfell Tower fire and it received a whole load of angry tweets and comments. It was obvious that most of those who had commented hadn’t even read the article. I quickly assessed that they were not regular bulletin readers and were unlikely to be potential customers, as they were supply chain professionals from Australia. I was happy to let them rant, didn’t engage with them to further feed the fire, and they quickly got bored and moved on.

Most teachers of crisis management will tell you that silence is not a crisis management strategy and you should always engage with those commenting and responding to your crisis. This is sage advice in most instances, but sometimes you have to recognise that silence is the best strategy. The strategy is right if you feel the media may be trying to use the crisis to hook in their watchers or listeners and need a moving incident to do so. The criticism of your organisation may be part of another’s agenda or those criticising your organisation may not be stakeholders, so you are not that bothered about their opinion. We all, either as individuals or organisations, want to be loved and may take criticism personally, but sometimes we have to put our fingers in our ears, shout LA LA LA and tell them we are not listening. They will soon get bored and turn their attention to someone else.