You Make The Call: Lie, Come Clean, Or No Comment?
Imagine you’re the spokesperson for a grocery chain. You know that you’re about to close several of your stores and layoff hundreds of workers. You’d prefer not to talk about it until the deal is closed, because you’d rather not say anything that could compromise the deal.
But the local press figures it out and asks you for comment.
What should you do? Lie? Come clean? Offer a half-truth? Say “no comment?”
As Kevin Allen, a contributor to PR Daily wrote on Friday, a Midwestern grocery chain named Schnucks appears to have opted for the “lying” approach.
It seems that Memphis’ The Commercial Appeal got wind of Schnucks’ impending deal to sell its local stores to Kroger. When the newspaper contacted the company in late August, Schnucks spokesperson Lori Willis told the paper:
“There’s no truth to those rumors. Typically, we would not comment on rumor and speculation, but I will acknowledge these rumors have gotten to a point with the media where I feel I need to tell you there is no truth to those rumors. It’s business as usual at our stores…We’ve done everything we can to assure our teammates there’s nothing to worry about."
Then, last week, the chain announced that they were indeed closing their Memphis stores and laying off hundreds of workers. Whoops. When asked what happened, Ms. Willis told the paper:
“I did not lie to you. I gave you the best information I had at the time…Whenever you’re working on an agreement of this type, nothing happens overnight. But it’s not a deal until it’s a deal. Discussions beforehand can be very detrimental when you are trying to make arrangements."
Actually, she did lie. She lied when she said there’s “no truth” to those rumors and when she told her “teammates” that there was “nothing to worry about.” Ms. Willis effectively confessed when she acknowledged that telling the truth could have thwarted the deal.
In fairness, this is a tough situation for spokespersons, and it’s not as easy a call as it might appear.
Here are four options from which to choose:
OPTION ONE: LIE – You can follow the Schnucks approach of lying to the local press to get them off your trail and give you the time you need to complete the deal. It doesn’t really matter, since they were abandoning the local market anyway. Who cares if they alienated local reporters?
OPTION TWO: HALF-TRUTH – Issue a carefully-worded statement using the approach of “commenting without commenting,” which allows spokespersons to offer a response that explains why you cannot answer the question. She might have simply said, “Like many businesses, we have a policy against commenting on potential future deals. If and when we have a deal to announce, we will release that news immediately. As of now, I can tell you that there is no deal to sell any of Shnucks’ locations in Memphis.”
OPTION THREE: COME CLEAN – Nothing is more important than your integrity. So what if coming completely clean thwarts the deal or has a devastating effect on employee morale and retention? Your brand’s integrity isn’t negotiable, and you’re going to maintain that regardless of the consequences.
OPTION FOUR: NO COMMENT – Although “no comment” looks obstructionist and hints that there may be truth to the rumors, it allows you to continue negotiating the deal without being accused of lying to the press.
If you’d like, please add more detailed thoughts to the comment section below!
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For me, the “lying” option is NOT an option. I don’t like the “half-truth” possibility offered because it seems too evasive to me and although I’m not a conspiracy theorist, it triggered a twinge of conspiracy in my mind. Perhaps a slightly modified version that one would work – I’d like to see something that refers to the value of the employees and indicates that it’s a top priority for the company to communicate with and support their employees, especially in these tough times, and commenting to the media on any deals that may or may not be in the works would be inappropriate at this time. Coming clean might not have been a real option because maybe there wasn’t enough info to do so; in addition, it would blindside the employees and I think that’s worse than a “no comment at this time” to the media. I sure as hell don’t like what they did in this situation, but the alternatives as written weren’t all that appealing, either. This situation is a great example of being between a rock and a hard place when it comes to media and crisis communications.
Kim – I really like your comment. If you have a few extra minutes today, I’d be curious to see your finished “statement” to the press. I like where you were going with your version, and would love to see the 3-4 sentence statement you might have forwarded to the reporter in this case.
Thanks for the thoughtful comment!
Brad – great topic, I saw this last last week on PR daily and it’s a great piece for discussion. Just the type of thing that makes PR people and companies look terrible. I think the worst part is that when a spokesperson like this lies to the media, they are really lying to the employees. So when you talk about the consequences of option 1, it’s not just burning bridges with a local reporter or two, it’s a lie to the staff. And for a company to get caught in a lie when people’s jobs are on the line is terrible – you’ve now created a crisis where there was simply a communications challenge.
I think “options” 1 and 4 are never good options under any circumstances. Never lie, not only becuase it’s the wrong thing to do, but because you are certain to be caught and the company’s reputation will suffer greatly, as in this case. Secondly, there’s never a situation where saying “no comment” is the best idea. You can ALWAYS go to something like an option 2, where you comment without commenting.
So that brings us to options 2 or 3, or something in the middle. In this case, let’s assume that option 3 (full disclosure that a deal would probably be reached any day now) was off the table. So I think the best approach would have been something in the ballpark of option 2, but closer to No. 3. And the key tipping point in my mind are the rumors. By the time a reporter is following up on rumors, chances are they are very widespread. And as a company you have to deal with that. So on that basis I would have pushed the company to issue a statement that acknowledged discussions and/or negotiations (a bit of option 3), but said that we can’t offer speculation on a potential deal, no deal has been reached etc. (a bit of option 2) – that way you address the rumor, but put it in proper context. And while you haven’t pleased everyone with that, it would avert the much larger crisis brought on by lying or misleading the public, press and employees.
I like this topic!Obviously, option2 is the most popular and useful. Dont deny the truth, but cant let the truth go public, becuase PR should always consider company’s maximum benefit.
I didn’t vote, but I was curious about the spread of responses. My hunch was confirmed. Most would settle for the comment without comment. Since we don’t know what the internal dialogue between Schnucks and Krogers senior management was, or the conditions under which Schnucks was selling its Memphis stores, my take on the comment-without-ommenting option would lean more toward truth. After all, everything rides on keeping the integrity of the brand untarnished.
However, this post raises another interesting question, which comes to light once the lie is exposed. There was no internal dialogue with employees of the Memphis Schnucks stores. And that’s where communication begins to break down, forcing the Schnucks PR gal to make a bad decision.
When deals like this go down that affect a large number of employees, those line workers have right to know. What’s interesting, when they are kept in the loop, that actually tends to build loyalty and keep the brand untarnished. Too often, line workers are not kept in the loop. And, whether information comes through internal or external sources, it’s usually not enough too late. Then they feel betrayed.
Before the media called the Schnuks PR gal, she would have been internally communicating developments and possible ramification of a sale to employees. Senior management should have been leading those conversations, while she gave the media a play-by-play of the sale.
Honestly, trust and loyalty starts with early communication and frequent, truthful updates that start internally and move externally in time.
In the case of Schnucks, I’d opt for “no comment”. But, I guess it really comes down to a case by case scenario. I’d never opt for the “lie” option (and am surprised no one else did either, in the poll). But, I might go for the “half-lie” option depending on how many people might get hurt, how much the truth is known at the time, etc.
Interesting question and good to think about. Schnucks used to be here in the KC market.
P.S. In thinking this issue through, I realized something: The term “half-truth” sounds a whole lot better than “half-lie.”