To Speak, or Not to Speak: The Art of Silence in Strategic Communication – By Maryam Folarin
The art of maintaining silence when one is most expected to speak out could easily be misunderstood as a sign of incompetence, or outright arrogance by the public, more so in the field of public relations. But today, strategic silence is no longer an in-action, or a means to hide something, it is rather a more complex concept that is central to PR in theory and practice.
It is the conscious and purposeful process where a material fact is not publicized or mentioned, which can either be a negative material fact such violations in environmental laws, or a positive one like gaining a certification or endorsement. It is most frequently observed in positive news like awards, certifications and endorsements than previously thought. A study in 2017 found that many large organizations engage in strategic silence for fear of being labelled hypocritical by the public, particularly on social media, and the press.
Mainstream public relations as we practice today overvalue noise, sound and voice in public communication. But then how can we explain that while practitioners use silence on a daily basis and why the concept of it has widely remained silent? Why is silence habitually framed as inherently bad and unethical?
Silence is not separate from communication, neither is it the opposite. The main point here isthe silence is not by omission, error, or administrative oversight, but intentional. Roumen Dimitrov states in his book on Strategic Silence that “the inclusion of silence on a par with speech and non-verbal means is a vital element of any communication strategy; it opens it up for a new, complex and more reflective understanding of strategic silence as indirect communication”.
Practicing this art opens doors to more dynamic communication.
Situations for silence as practiced in strategic communication is broken down in a critical essay by Dimitrov – ‘Explicit and Implicit Strategies…’ where he talks about various practices of silence in communication, some of which are:
Intentional, directed at audiences:
This is when we put our best foot forward for promotional purposes. We use depersonalised, repetitive, and automatized strategies of silence, advertising not what does not sell, but what sells best. What looks best should represent the rest, pursuing the “halo effect”, the essence of branding; we are strategically vocal about one thing and silent about many. This is basically saying “Buy this vacuum model, it’s 100x more efficient”.
We practice this mostly in interpersonal communication, where the message understood is determined by the drivers of the conversation. It is the silence that conveys meaning. As with any other communication, communicative-silence involves sense-making, including speaking and listening, encoding, and decoding. And of course, there are non-communicative silences, too, where they may obstruct access to information and conversation, which in this case is the purpose.
When we speak as communicators, silence is in the implicitness of the meant – not of the said and of the omitted – not of the stated. Silence does not necessarily mean that we do not talk to the media, that’ll be too much of a risk today, not talking also speaks. In such cases, they give up control over the message – which may well be their strategic intent.
Whereas some communicators ceaselessly talk to the media and draw them with material that diffuses and makes unquestionable certain discourses, issues, and views. That is to say as communicators we need to use strategic silence to frame the questions rather than answers in the public debate, influencing the answers in a noisy discourse.
In situation of communication:
When we use humour, sarcasm, irony, and other indirect means of conversation, we flaunt the rules of serious, straight, and exact talk. But people usually seem to understand the oblique relevance of those detours, often close to nonsense or silence or both, and appreciate them.
It allows you to speak (by not speaking) in a dynamic way allowing the other party to absorb the meaning in their own contexts; who is appropriate to participate and who not? Who is setting the rules and who not? What is deemed sensible and what not?
In strategic silence, the emphasis of communication moves from the speaker to the listener. The more indirect communication becomes, the more prominent listening becomes; meaning the more silent we are, the more attention we draw when we eventually speak. In that sense, silence elevates listening and may even be a more important element of conversation and action.
There is no strategy without risk and surprise. Strategic silences take chances, they allow but also demand an unusually higher degree of engagement, for which the listeners may not be ready. Therefore, we must be intentional in our implementation of strategic silence.
The conversations around listening and silence in public relations are becoming the focus of the era, diving deep into the essence of PR in technicalities that were previously only implicitly recognised and referred to. In a sense that silence elevates listening as an equal or could even be a more important element of conversation and action to practice.
Maryam Amoke Folarin – A Communications Specialist.