Sound of silence in a noisy world

Sudeep Bhalla, Head Corporate Communications, Tata Motors, writes on the power of silence and outlines scenarios where 'mum's the word' is best applicable

e4m by Sudeep Bhalla
Published: Jun 29, 2022 8:32 AM  | 6 min read
Sudeep Bhalla

And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence

We live in a noisy world. Every day, 60 billion WhatsApp texts, 95 million Instagram posts and 140 million tweets are produced. We upload 300 hours’ worth of videos on YouTube every minute and send 3.5 million emails every second. Amidst this mind-numbing ocean of incessant content and proliferating opinions, making our own voices heard has become more daunting than ever. 'No one is listening' is the common complaint yet the popular path to prominence seems to be ‘cut through this noise’ - shout louder and push through even more content!

But what if we were to turn this idea on its head? What if we tap into the unseen, unheard and ubiquitous superpower of silence to make a statement?

Silence is full of answers

I’m certainly not referring to the awkward silence that comes when we have nothing to say, do not know enough or do not have the right words to convey what we feel. In contrast, think about the impact of silence when we want to build suspense, command power or signal empathy.

Maintaining silence is mandatory for purposeful listening that contributes 50 per cent for any communication to be impactful. There are times when we consciously exercise its power – the mandatory ‘silent period’ prior to announcing financial results, in building anticipation prior to a big bang launch or before unveiling a high-decibel campaign.

Break the silence only if you have something more beautiful to say

The power of silence comes to the fore in managing a crisis. Managing a crisis is not about good vs bad but about preventing the bad from getting worse. Judiciously exercising the power of pause for contemplation prevents conflicts from escalating. As communication professionals, our priority is always building and managing reputations. Just as in customer service, a sincere apology is often the way to solve many problems, in communication, silence is perhaps a good way to avoid getting into problems.

Silence is loud

The phenomenon of remaining silent about your underlying positives or inherent strengths is ‘Greenhush’. A classic example of this is seen in the 1988 Oscar-winning movie Rain Man where Dustin Hoffman alludes to the little-known fact of Qantas not having a plane crash in the jet era and insists that Tom Cruise fly him only on it.

From a PR perspective, it is about consciously maintaining silence about benevolence when ‘purposeful’ is the buzzword for reputation building.  I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t be purposeful. You must! I’m only submitting that if everything is communicated out there in a routine, transactional manner, what will be your strategic weapon to tackle actual reputational threats caused by genuine corporate mishaps?

In mythology, ‘Brahmastra’, the most powerful of weapons, can strike only once and is, hence, used as the weapon of last resort. Similarly, reputation management demands the investment of ideas and time to develop a pristine ‘Brahmastra’, the patience to strategically preserve it as your own ‘Greenhush’ and deploy it only in the most extreme of situations.     

Seven situations when silence is your best friend

  1. Wrestling a pig: Even if you win, you will get dirty! It never pays to engage with all critics. Any significant social response may serve to elevate or dignify a nutty claim, while silence preserves your brand’s standing by rising above trolls and cranks. This means that PR must recognise the difference between an anonymous troll with a minuscule following and a legitimate customer or influencer. It’s where experience and good judgment come into play.
  2. You have defenders: It may be unnecessary or even counterproductive to join the fray when brand ambassadors or regular customers are already on the case. This is especially true when the criticism or critique is questionable.
  3. Your troll is too powerful: On the flip side, there are some critics who aren’t worth engaging because they command a bully pulpit. Logical and rational behaviour can’t be expected and everything that you say or do will be twisted and turned against you with amplification. This is routinely observed in politics and reaches a crescendo during elections. Picking and choosing the battles to fight is as vital in communication as in war. While the war always ends, its lore becomes history.
  4. You don’t have all the facts: Crisis-management best practice calls for an immediate response when reputation is on the line. But temporary strategic silence is sometimes necessary to offer an accurate response. If a company speaks before it has all the information, it risks inflaming the crisis or worse, inviting legal liability. Where silence is unavoidable, just a statement that acknowledges the problem with a pledge to get to the bottom of it is a logical starting point.
  5. It’s an industry issue: Packaged food and nutrition, beverage companies and groundwater are classic issues that each company in the business is tackling. While addressing these externalities may not be mandatory, the pressure from advocacy groups to do so is only rising. This is where industry and trade associations come in handy to be at the front and center of the public discussion.
  6. SEO isn’t good: Sometimes a company has a well-crafted public position on a controversial topic but chooses not to comment on a relevant development for SEO reasons. An alcohol brand may lead a campaign against underage drinking – motivated by the halo that comes with such an effort. That’s laudable. But for the same company to comment on an investigation into marketing to minors might forever link the brand to that inquiry. Even though it’s on the right side of the issue, its brand will turn up when any journalist researches the topic for a story or follow-up.
  7. Other audiences are more important: In special situations, companies often opt to inform and engage only those directly associated with them - employees, investors, vendors and channel partners, rather than talking to the public at large. Litigation is another area where most companies restrict their communications to avoid saying anything that could influence ongoing legal proceedings.

To summarise, silence is deliberate, active and impactful communication. The context in which it is used defines its influence and meaning. When used deliberately and mindfully, silence can be very constructive. As a communication professional, it can be your ultimate weapon of power. Explore and benefit from its myriad manifestations. 

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