Sssh…PR and the power of silence

In public relations we craft in words, but sometimes forget the power of silence.  Fewer words often carry more weight – in sales, knowing when to keep quiet seals the deal.  Listening – just listening.

But in PR, we are constantly talking, sending out press releases with nothing much to say, producing newsletters stuffed with columns of nonsense, annual reports full of propaganda, soundbites that mean nothing, conference speeches that add little to human knowledge.  Maybe we should learn to shut up – how about a day of silence for PR and marketing messages?

In graphic design, silence is white space – however, I recently saw the theatre programme for the RSC production of that had minute margins; pages being artfully filled with words.  If white space creates a sense of opulence and elegance, was this design aiming to look less classical; to reflect a sense of rowdiness as in the play?

Writing in 1993, claims: “White space is nothing. White space is the absence of content. White space does not hold content in the way that a photograph or text holds meaning and yet it gives meaning and yet it gives meaning, through context, to both image and text.”

White space is extravagance. White space is the surface of the paper on which you are printing showing through and on which you are choosing NOT to print. If economy and conservation were your chief concern, then white space would be at minimum; obviously you would use it all up. So white space is used for purely semiotic values; for values of presentation which transcend economic values by insisting that the image of what you present is more important than the paper you could be saving.

In contrast, where writing is functional, white space is often minimised.  Robertson also identfied “working class/mass market publications” as reflecting a “commercial aesthetic of clutter” – perhaps a view that stuffing in words reflects value for money.

How often today do we take the opportunity to communicate with silence?  Our lives are cluttered with sound and visual stimulation.  Even when there is no background music, keyboards click, computers whirr and bleep, phones ring… 

Blogging could be considered to further clutter the world with words – online noise; arguments, rhetoric, whining, lecturing, diatribe and chatter.  Would one or two words surfice – perhaps a blog experiment to try.  Literally a word for the day.

Bloggers and public relations communicators could reflect the words of William James: “It is as important to cultivate your silence power as your word power” and Thomas Carlyle: “Speech is great; but silence is greater.”

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.

2 thoughts on “Sssh…PR and the power of silence”

  1. In the book, Confessions of a PR man, the author wrote press releases that contained more than 1000 (1200 words on occasion.) Did anybody at any time in the 20th century really want to wade through a press release that size in a busy news room?

    Some women seem to be unable to tolerate silence, whereas some guys quite happily sit through a meal, for instance, and utter a few words if that. I wonder if men are more adept at those closing deal silence tactics than women are?

  2. That’s surprising over the length of a press release – I can only see that volume justified if it is a pack containing lots of background, for example with a new car as we used to produce. Having said that, we used to get calls all the time from journalists asking questions that were in the pack, but they found it easier to call and get us to tell them.

    Not sure about the gender difference in silence – would it be sexist to suggest selective deafness is going on here?

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