Saturday, November 7, 2015

The Art of Saying Nothing (or Saying it Well)

Fascinating to follow high-growth tech companies’ public affairs activity lately. I like that they are far less risk averse than traditional large corporations. CEOs are active on social media, they act fast, and don’t worry as much about whether they will ruffle feathers. But sometimes the strategy of saying nothing may be better than reacting.

Amazon’s letter in response to the scathing New York Times piece on its employee culture came across as sour grapes and reinforced the Times’ message. Attacking the messenger? Yikes. This isn’t a court case- it’s your reputation. Humiliating someone who spoke up- whether the details are true or not on either side- is poor form and sends a signal that Amazon does not tolerate criticism. Of course Amazon would not issue a statement validating the reports of tough employee conditions, so… saying nothing would have been better. Or at least having the CEO himself issue a short acknowledgement and viewpoint statement.

Airbnb put up then quickly took down ads in San Francisco poking at the government for taxing its business model. These ads smugly suggesting what the city could do with the tax revenue came across as tone deaf, ill-informed and in some cases offensive. All around, an amateur campaign. Another case of better of just focusing on your business rather than trying to react publicly to bad news.

On the bright side, two women-run companies showed restraint while professionally responding to harsh critique. Jessica Alba’s The Honest Company was first attacked in the media then sued in court over effectiveness of a sunscreen formulation. Jessica issued short statements emphasizing the company’s mission, commitment to continuous improvement, and customer education about natural products. Nice.

Elizabeth Holmes, CEO of Theranos, sat down in person with major media to combat high-profile negative information about her products’ performance and regulatory standing. She denied the claims yet shifted messaging on offering more data and transparency going forward. Some reactions saw her as deflecting too much, but at least she got out there herself and kept the focus on her products.


Best handling of tough media attention in this roundup? My vote goes to The Honest Company. Sure, some will try to rake Holmes and Alba over the coals. Show me a young female billionaire entrepreneur who doesn't get heavy scrutiny. I like how they are handling themselves- and admire their courage to engage directly.