In praise of PR silence

This is possibly the shortest ever post at PR Conversations. Normally we like to stimulate a conversation with a lengthy and considered post. We develop a line of thought and encourage debate and development of our ideas. But sometimes, it is better to write short – to express something in a few choice words, present a succinct phrase or two, or suggest a thought in a concise manner.

I’m not talking about disposable discussion or candyfloss communications. Rather there is merit in being able to précis, synthesise or edit work to its essence. Quality isn’t the same as quantity – whether that is long or short writing. Sometimes an aperitif, amuse-bouche or taster topic is enough to whet the appetite, a few words can get someone thinking or start a conversation.

We all need time to consider what we’ve read or heard. Silence is a key part of effective communications – sales people know when to keep quiet and close the deal, designers know where to use white space to allow words and images to grab attention. In public relations, we seem to feel a need to keep on communicating rather than allow others to reflect. We churn out content, issue release after release of pseudo-news, and craft long speeches when less could be more. Are we scared that we will be forgotten if we haven’t scheduled Tweets every few hours? Do we not have the confidence to leave people wanting more, or to miss our pithy words?

Can we not just relax together in companionable silence?

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11 Replies to “In praise of PR silence

  1. Great post. Today’s society is constantly speeding up, therefore people do not want, nor have time to slow down and read, or follow, a long and drawn out campaign. This is especially true for the younger generation.

    Also, why haven’t PR professionals used a little bit of the “silent treatment?” People naturally begin to think or question things when they realize they are being “ignored” or not getting updates as frequently. This does not mean that public relations should ignore people, but they should consider leaving a little bit of mystery in the minds of their publics.

  2. Alas, Heather, I cannot remain silent about silence. In the Quaker tradition (half Quaker, half Jewish, fully confused…), silence is where you find God. In Native American tradition (and in First Peoples, I’m sure) contemplation in silence and amid nature is the path to enlightenment. I note when I’m off on a hike that my Esteemed Spouse and I will be quiet for some time, and if we encounter others on the way, they will be festooned with headphones, which often are thundering something raucous. Why are they even there?

    Part of being silent is experiencing what is already present, rather than only what we bring to the moment. It is refreshing, restorative.

    1. Sean – thanks for the comment. It was interesting to see athletes at the Olympics & Paralympics talk about the music they listen to via their headphones (gifts from Dr Dre largely) to psych themselves up before performing. None seemed to look for silence or an enlightened place from which to find excellence. The roar of the crowds pushed some athletes on (especially the Brits) but put others off their game. Johnny Peacock notably asked the crowd for silence before starting his Gold medal winning race but screamed when succeeding. Fascinating to think more about the psychological and spiritual aspects of silence and noise, especially as we seek to create buzz and noise in PR.

  3. Judy,

    I guess what you’re describing above is covered conceptually by McLuhan’s notion of the tetrad. He posits that each new medium has one or a combination of four effects; enhancing, eroding, retrieving or reversing the effects of the medium before it. In your example, orality is enhanced by radio and in the book case the same orality is reversed (reading silently). The process below becomes clearer if you substitute artifact with medium:

    The Process of Tetrad Creation

    The tetrad is arrived at through a process of asking questions, based on historical, social, and technological knowledge of the subject:

    What does any artifact enlarge or enhance?
    What does it erode or obsolesce?
    What does it retrieve that had been earlier obsolesced?
    What does it reverse or flip into when pushed to the limits of its potential?

    These questions result in a set of four effects, namely: enhancement, obsolescence, retrieval, and reversal.

    These four elements are in a resonant relationship (or “interchange”) with one another; the parts of the tetrad are in a complementary relationship.

    1. Thanks, Don. One of the first people Nicholas Carr quotes is Marshall McLuhan. He sees him as being remarkably prescient about how the different mediums actually impact our thought processes.

      I think if he were alive today, McLuhan might actually be a bit frightened about the impact of multimedia/the Internet, as it appears to be reversing our capacity to concentrate and truly learn. By that I mean going into our long-term memory, versus the short-term one.

      There’s a great analogy regarding the long-term memory, about how banking into it is akin to “filling a bathtub with thimbles of water.”

  4. This morning I completed the chapter on testing the difference in “retention” between multimedia reads and straight narrative. Multimedia could be as simple as information with hyperlinks, but could also include a site that had a lot of (distracting) visual images–social shares, scrolls, etc.–and/or audio or video. (Incorporation of audio with or without slides–but NOT talking heads–does not seem to impact knowledge retention quite as much, although studies show we use different parts of the brain to process the written versus the spoken.)

    The theory emerging so far is that the Internet was not really “designed” for learning, although changes are currently being made to adjust and adapt. In addition, our brains are being rewired. Alas, often at the expense of attention and long-term memory.

    I hope you had a chance to listen to Ira Basen’s CBC Radio documentary about online learning, Heather, especially in light of the part you are playing in Kent State University’s online master’s in PR program.

  5. I did fear that the response to a post advocating silence would be just that…

    Judy – there’s a lot to be said for oral traditions, but in our promotional culture oriented world people seem to expect to be entertained rather than knowing how to listen to straight narrative. Or perhaps we have lost the art of telling an engaging story verbally?

    As part of developing a course for the online Masters at Kent State (see Bill’s great post on this here:, I had to add narrative to my Powerpoint slides. This was an interesting exercise in brevity and oral tradition. The total length needed to be under 10 minutes (ideally nearer to 6 minutes), so I had to write a script and record a sentence or two for each slide. I normally struggle to fit everything I want to cover into a 30 minute webinar, 50 minute face to face lecture or a full day workshop to be honest. So needing to keep the narrative accompaniment short and informative was a great lesson for me.

    On the course, there is also a requirement for students to write a response each week to a prompt question and comment on at least two of their fellow students’ work. I totally agree with you about working harder in terms of writing – and we set a tight word count of 250 for the response and 50 for each comment. So challenge in thinking, responding, discussing, and editing.

  6. Heather, I’m currently reading Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. Some of the interesting things I’m learning:

    1. (Post Gutenberg) When books first entered the popular norm, people used to read aloud. (I guess a continuation of the oral tradition.) When some started reading silently, others felt that was quite odd.
    2. When radio hit the broader airwaves, many people were convinced that was the end of the “printed” books…instead, they would be read aloud (again, back to the oral traditions).

    I do read and think better, quietly.

    Perhaps the most useful information I’ve gleaned (halfway through) is that we actually work our brains harder in the act of writing, rather than reading (whether quietly or out loud).

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