When keeping silent brings trouble

By Boris Sedacca

Over ten years ago, when I was editing an electrical magazine, I had bought some light bulbs from my local B&Q. The bad news is the bulbs had a habit of exploding when switched on. The first time, I didn't think much of it, but then when it happened a few times I kept one damaged light bulb and made contact with the manufacturer.

Wearing my editor’s hat, I asked the manufacturer to comment, who in turn asked me to send the damaged light bulb so they could investigate, but also promised to come back to me with a comment. When I subsequently told another fellow editor about it, he advised me on no account to send the damaged light bulb to that manufacturer.

He said: “They will just hush it up and you’ll never hear from them again. They are a right bunch of b*&^%%$ds!” He added that he had experienced bullying from that particular manufacturer and that I might expect the same treatment.

Therefore I kept the light bulbs and waited for a comment which never came. Finally I decided to write a story about what had happened. On seeing the story, my fellow editor asked if he could run the story too because lighting was his specialist subject and there was a lot more he could add to the story, and I agreed.

Whereas I ran my story over one and a half pages in an A4 magazine, my fellow editor ran three pages in his tabloid magazine, going into great depth about the inadequate fuse of the light bulb. In fact it had no fuse at all – the light bulb itself acted as a fuse.

Now all this made the story far more damaging to the manufacturer, and this was totally avoidable had the manufacturer made good on its promise to come back with a comment.

Fast forwarding to about five years ago, when I had moved into public relations, one of our clients had seen tough business conditions, which forced it to cut back on staff. One member of staff tipped off the local newspaper, one of whose reporters then left a voicemail asking the client for comment.

The client asked me what to do, and I advised him to call the reporter back straight away and to be absolutely candid about everything that was going on. I told him to explain that it is not uncommon for companies to lay off staff during difficult economic times.

The client took my advice and called the reporter back, who heard what he had to say and then concluded there was no story in it. Had the client not responded, the reporter might have wondered what the client had to hide, and run a story putting forward only the ex-employee’s point of view and saying the client had refused to comment.

The moral of the story: don’t ignore reporters. It’s their job to get the other side of the story when someone gives them one side. They may appear scary, but being candid usually disarms them. 

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Stone Junction is a cool technical PR agency based in Stafford. We work for all sorts of businesses, with a particular focus on technology, technical and engineering companies. We like being sent cake and biscuits by clients, journalists and prospects.

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