When keeping your mouth shut is a big PR mistake

The Chicago Tribune did a solid job of reporting about an important issue in “Plan for 20,000-hog facility sparks revolt in western Illinois” on Dec. 28, 2016. The 1,800-word article details the damage that Professional Swine Management’s plan to build the Runway Ridge Farms hog farm will do to the environment, the quality of life and the local infrastructure.

It’s a harmful list that undoubtedly persuaded a lot of readers to oppose the hog farm not just in Fulton County a few miles southwest of Peoria but hog farms everywhere.

So what did Professional Swine Management have to say to respond to the article and its damaging assertions and facts?

No comment.

As the Tribune article noted: “Company officials declined interview requests and said they would not comment on their Fulton County plans or any aspects of their business. ‘I think at this point we don’t have any comment on any of these items,’ said Julie Totten, chief financial officer.”

In other words: Screw you. The public be damned. It’s our business so get out of the way. No, that’s not what the company actually said, but that’s how many people will read it. The damage to the company and the industry as a whole is incalculable.

Having worked as a PR director for a publicly held, Fortune 50 company, I fully understand the urge, predisposition and even the need to remain silent. Lawyers, whose standard response is to shut the hell up, almost always have the last word in touchy PR situations like this. And in the short run, that might be the right policy.

But the company has set in motion larger forces in the political and public policy spheres that will rebound against it. Many people will figure that “swine” is an appropriate name for the company. As the article notes, it’s just a small number of people who showed up for a meeting to carry on the fight against the swine farm, but now they’ve got many allies throughout the state. With public opinion on the side of the neighbors objecting to the swine farm, it will be a lot tougher to steamroll the project through.

Furthermore, the article quotes people who make the case for stricter regulation of the swine industry. Expect to see the Illinois Legislature to consider bills to impose tougher environmental rules and give regulators more power to enforce those rules. Fines would be increased. Perhaps even the Feds will get involved. The entire industry will be hurt by the apparent arrogance of Professional Swine Management.

Because of the nature of its business, the company shouldn’t be surprised by the negative reaction. Instead of a damaging “no comment,” the company should have been prepared to make its case if it emerged as a public issue. As the article hints (in a relatively small way), the industry does take steps to protect the environment and quality of life of neighbors. The company should have had a pro-active package of responses all set to go even before it knew that the project would be getting major media attention. So the company’s silence has missed an opportunity to make its case with facts and figures.

Moreover, it must be prepared to respond simultaneously with the first newspaper article or media presentation. Waiting to respond later automatically puts the company on the defensive. Coverage of the response probably won’t be as timely or intense as the first disclosure. Sometimes, there’s no tomorrow as some editors and producers will take the attitude (as wrong as it is) that “you’ve already had your chance to respond and you blew it.”

The company’s non-response feeds the belief that it is “hiding something.” It supports the inclination in some newsrooms (as wrong as it is) that big swine farm companies, like oil and other large companies, have only their self-interest in mind.  And nuts to everyone else.

Maybe it’s true.