How to use silence before and during a brand crisis

May 12, 2023

Silence is one of the most effective PR strategies. Contrary to what we hear on social media, today’s MAJOR, LIFE-CHANGING controversy is often tomorrow’s distant memory.

Anheuser-Busch, for example, would have benefited from silence before its decision to enter, then retreat from, the gender identity debate. A controversy that never should have existed has become a dominant news cycle of offended consumers, lost sales, and shifting internal blame because the company simply didn’t know when to stop talking.

But like anything else, silence is the right solution only under the right circumstances. The U.S. Supreme Court’s legitimacy has been under attack by left-of-center critics since its Dobbs decision turned abortion laws over to the states. Public support is down, and many left-of-center elected officials and activists have called for President Joe Biden to ignore the Court. Yet the Court has made few gestures to counter critics and reassure the public at large.

These two institutions – an international conglomerate and one of the three pillars of the U.S. republican government – have very little in common. But they are perfect book-end case studies for how to think about silence as a brand crisis solution.

The Court’s tradition of silence

Over the past 60 years, the U.S. Supreme Court has relied heavily on silence to navigate backlash against its most controversial decisions, such as when some elected officials tried to ignore its Civil Rights Era decisions in favor of racial equality. More recently, even as trust in other institutions was breaking down – Congress’ popularity has been low for years – the public generally held the Court in modest esteem.

Part of this success is that while the Court can’t always be silent about controversies due to its role in the judiciary, it does reject over 95% of the cases that come to it. This pre-emptive silence keeps the Court out of many disputes, and staying out of a controversy in the first place is the best way to avoid brand damage.

But silence can do only so much, especially as our politics has become more partisan. Conservatives hated the Court’s last decade of health care, marriage, and abortion decisions, while liberals were incensed over decisions about guns, voting rights, and money in politics. But it was the Dobbs decision that tipped the scales the wrong way for the Court’s reputation.

The Court’s response to this onslaught has largely been silence. Its lone recent public-facing effort was an April statement signed by all nine justices – from hard-right conservatives to far-left liberals – rejecting the idea that Congress should take an authoritative approach in response to allegations of Court corruption. The statement was thorough, elegant…and far, far too little in response to a comprehensive assault on the institution’s legitimacy.

When comprehensive marketing & branding goes wrong

 Anheuser-Busch is one of America’s most popular brands. It spent over $300 million on advertising in the U.S. alone in 2021, and its famed ads – from Super Bowl frogs to Christmas Clydesdales to supporting the troops – have put its beers in the hands of millions of consumers every day.

Marketing and branding puts brands in front of customers and prospective customers. However, there are times when silence is the best solution to navigate consumer anger – like when subsidiary company Bud Light’s partnership with Dylan Mulvaney angered the company’s blue-collar, conservative base.

This is a classic case of shooting oneself in the foot. The Mulvaney campaign wasn’t a response to consumer demand; the company’s VP of Marketing proactively decided that engaging in a culturally controversial issue would appeal to younger consumers. Lost sales and weeks of bad headlines have been the result, and that VP has been put on leave.

Instead of focusing on growth by reaching all target audiences with universal values like good customer service, Bud Light put the company on defense. Anheuser-Busch then compounded the error by producing a statement from CEO Brendan Whitworth which solved nothing, kept the bad headlines coming, and cost the company further sales from both sides of the gender identity debate.

Know when to start – and stop – talking

Some controversies are worth addressing, which is why the Supreme Court broke its tradition of silence. On the other side of the spectrum, Anheuser-Busch could have simply stopped talking about Dylan Mulvaney to limit the controversy, keep the news cycle short, and reduce company losses.

Silence after controversy has a record of success. Target was under brutal attack for months after it allowed men in women’s changing rooms, but its relative silence after the initial controversy slowly earned back customers who wanted its great prices. Chick-fil-A’s Christian owners’ views have led to continuous protests from LGBT activists and even public officials who want the company’s franchises banned, but the dearth of corporate responses means that Chick-fil-A is regularly ranked in the top three fast food restaurants and earns the most revenue-per-location of any fast food chain.

Silence: Like anything else, the right tool for some jobs

In our sound-bite social-media world, with attention spans vanishingly short and getting even shorter, silence will continue to be the right answer for most controversies. But like any strategy, it’s only the right answer under the right circumstances. If you must talk to head off a controversy, do it right so your organization can stay focused on what matters most to most consumers: an unrelenting dedication to delivering quality products and service.

A version of this piece was originally published by Dustin Siggins at PR News Online. 

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *