Should you respond or clam up? Here’s a primer for businesses

Public relations professionals offer their advice on when to respond to a reporter or social media troll, and when to stay quiet.


Last month, Lululemon became a hot topic when it announced the recall of its popular black yoga pants. After a week of intense coverage, the Vancouver-based retailer clammed up.

A representative from ICR, which is handling media and investor relations for Lululemon during the yoga pants recall, was forthcoming with information and statements until last week, when the rep politely declined our request for comment

“We will not be providing comments at this time,” the spokesperson said.

One of the most important parts of a PR professional’s job is to counsel clients whether to respond to allegations or consumer complaints in mainstream or social media channels.

While the phrase “no comment” is generally verboten, or the more genial “we choose not to respond at this time,” the power and reach of media outlets plays a large part in the decision to respond, as is the author’s influence.

It’s becoming increasingly difficult for companies in the middle of a media maelstrom to tread the fine line between transparency and “we’re done talking”—and it’s a challenge PR pros are faced with on a daily basis.

But it appears the rules are different when it comes to mainstream vs. social media channels.

Social media

The ‘comments’ section—beware the trolls

“Trolls” is Internet slang for someone who posts remarks in an online community for the express purpose of provoking an emotional response. Often, they are anonymous authors with untraceable links; most PR pros advise their clients not to respond to trolls because their influence and reach is often low and/or unknown.

“The ‘comments’ section has become a breeding ground where anybody’s opinion can be heard,” said Jodi Echakowitz, president of Echo Communications in Toronto. “There’s nothing worse than a heated discussion that a company or brand will regret after the fact,”

Echakowitz she will advise her clients not to respond to trolls. “It’s typically not worth the time nor effort, and will not change the end result or influence how the troll is thinking.”

Mainstream media

Transparency is key

Mainstream media has its own inherent challenges, which are amplified by articles that are written by highly visible and potentially powerful reporters. The decision to respond takes on a different dimension; it’s also the place where traditional and digital formats collide.

“While there are exceptions to every rule, and assuming it is the client’s issue to respond to in the first place, I would be hard pressed to think of a situation in which I would advise them not to engage with the media in some way,” said Warren Weeks, media trainer and owner of Eleven PR in Toronto. “Today, more than ever before, transparency is the only option. Every customer and employee with a smartphone is a media company. The truth will come out. And I’d rather get the company’s message out there first.”

The person responding to a media outlet’s inquiries depends on the issue, according to Weeks. He suggested companies choose the a spokesperson based on his or her skill set, strengths, and a variety of other factors.

Set the record straight

Even when you know you are participating in a negative article, providing your organization’s point-of-view can create balance.

“If we are called by the press for a quote, we always provide one, essentially because transparency is so paramount to instill trust in our company,” said John Trader, a PR and marketing manager with M2SYS Technology, a biometric identity management firm based in Atlanta.

“I would never advise our C-level to not make a statement to the press,” Trader explained.

“In a field where we are trying to establish more credibility and transparency, it’s like shooting yourself in the foot. We want people to educate themselves on truths, not half-truths and rumors, and make up their minds for themselves.”

Responding in anger

PR professionals are often charged with diffusing a client’s anger when the media portrays the company in an unfair or harsh manner.

“If a client is angry or upset by an article, I will advise them to hold off responding until they have a clearer head,” said Echakowitz. “In such situations, I’ve also suggested they respond directly to a reporter with an offer to follow up by phone. Some responses—especially where comments may come across as either defensive or as an attack on a reporter—are better shared through a one on one conversation with a reporter.”

Are there any other situations where you would provide advice to clam up or respond?

RELATED: 5 alternatives to ‘no comment’

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