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?”
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.
Related: What To Do When a Reporter Knows Too Much