The sound of silence

About the author

Richard Bailey FCIPR MPRCA is editor of our Insights, formerly PR Place. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.

Image by MeHe from Pixabay
Image by MeHe from Pixabay

I first learnt this important lesson as a young school teacher. When trying to pacify a rowdy class, the worst thing you can do is to raise your voice. This only adds to the noise and gives permission for it to continue.

To bring calm, you have to stay silent. Soon, all eyes will turn to you and the noise will die down.

Years later, I applied this lesson in a presentation to my biggest client when I was a consultancy account director.

They’d recently appointed a new UK managing director who was looking to make an immediate impact by disrupting the status quo and putting pressure on existing relationships. As I was presenting a review of activity he audibly started joking with a colleague.

‘Does what I’m saying matter?’ I asked myself. If it doesn’t, then make no fuss and carry on with the presentation. Yet, if it doesn’t matter, then why are we there and why are we taking their money?

So if what we do does matter, then I need to regain the attention of the room. I fell silent and stayed on my feet. And waited.

What happened next? Nothing lasts forever, but we retained that client for longer than the MD stayed in his post.

These are lessons in the power of silence – of keeping shtum.

Three more. Can you name the third country after the United States and China in a ranking of nations by their number of dollar millionaires? It’s Germany (according to a piece in this week’s Economist newspaper). Perhaps not so surprising given the size of its industrial economy and success of its retail businesses – but can you name any of these billionaires or their families?

Though German car manufacturers and German supermarkets are well known, the individuals and families running them prefer to maintain a Lutheran modesty and remain as private as possible. One entrepreneurial family is said to oblige family members ‘to sign a charter at age of 18 whereby they pledge to stay away from day-to-day workings of the family business, shun social media, avoid being photographed in public and turn down interviews.’

It’s an approach that’s served Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II well during her long reign, too.

Management consultancy McKinsey has such a strong reputation that it is able to charge higher fees than its closest competitors, Bain and Boston Consulting Group. Yet we learn from a piece in The Times last Saturday that McKinsey ‘cannot trumpet its successes because doing so would steal the glory from its clients, which would cost repeat business. So it stays quiet.’

Can you imagine public relations firms applying this principle when it comes to Cannes Lions and all the other awards they’re so keen to put in for?

Keeping shtum is not often presented as an option in public relations textbooks. These extol transparency, and warn against the guilty associations of ‘no comment’. Yet Keeping Shtum was the title of a 2016 book by senior corporate communicator Steven Olivant who’d studied public relations theory and found it lacking.

His starting point is the contentious case of Apple. ‘By conventional wisdom, excellent communication means openness and transparency, not secrecy and surprise. In theory, keeping shtum, as Apple did for years, should have been bad for business… Despite being arguably the most successful company of the past two decades, Apple has been ignored or derided by communication experts.’

Among these experts, David Brain and Martin Thomas grappled with the paradox of Apple in their 2008 book, Crowd Surfing. How come Apple breaks all the rules, yet is so profitable, and so passionately loved by users? Their answer: that Apple is the exception that proves the rule.

Of course there’s a place for legitimate scrutiny; there’s a time for publicity and self-promotion. Evasiveness is not a good look. Yet context is king.

The context of these cases is about longevity and the mystique of power and leadership.

Monarchy needs to be seen it it’s to retain public support; but an earlier editor of The Economist, Walter Bagehot, long ago warned against shedding light on the mystique of monarchy (the ‘dignified; rather than the ‘efficient’ part of the English constitution).

Apple was for a long time an interesting but underperforming computer company. Then, by combining music, telephony and mobile computing in one slick handheld device it became the market leader of a new category of consumer device and an unprecedentedly profitable business.

German billionaires know that being flashy would bring unwelcome attention and risk offending against the nation’s image of itself as a hardworking, sober and meritocratic society.

Finally, there’s the strange case of Boris Johnson. The frontrunner for the leadership of the Conservative Party – and to be our next prime minister – is famed for his bluster and bombast. Yet he has been uncharacteristically disciplined and reluctant to speak in public during this contest. He was ‘empty chaired’ in the first televised debate between the candidates, though he’s expected to appear in the second.

He’s already well known. That’s partly why he’s the favourite among an electorate of colleagues and party members who hardly need to discover him. So his advisers have calculated that he has little to gain by debating with the other candidates. Instead, he potentially has everything to lose by questions about his detailed plans for the UK to leave the EU on October 31;  by questions about his morals or his record in public office.

As recently as three years ago, his previous tilt at the top job ended in shambles after a senior supporter (and leadership rival) turned against him and attempted a character assassination in public.

You can see why he has chosen to keep shtum this time. It’s an interesting approach, but I can’t see it being adopted by all world leaders.