Is it ever a good idea to avoid talking to the media?
Naturally, it depends on the circumstances; though sound PR advice would be normally to engage – as unpalatable as it may seem when under the intense glare of the media spotlight.
But the world of entertainment is not necessarily normal.
Forty years ago, Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange was released on an unsuspecting public. The film – set in a dystopian, near-future of violent street gangs – was certainly shocking for early 1970s audiences, but was made – according to its star, Malcolm McDowell, as a “comedy, albeit a very black one”.
Very soon, the film was “under siege” from the self-appointed protectors of public morals, including Mary Whitehouse, then-Home Secretary, Reginald Maudling, and Christian groups. Under pressure, Kubrick withdrew his film from circulation, not to see the dimmed light of a cinema auditorium in the UK again until 1999.
What is interesting is the view from the film’s producer, Jan Harlan – quoted in the Guardian’s recent 40-year retrospective article – who says about Kubrick: “His big mistake is that he never talked back to the press. Nonsense was written, but his attitude was, ‘Don’t talk to them or you’ll never get rid of them.’ He could have avoided all that by being a bit more accessible, but he just hated it.”
Now, we’ll never know whether talking to the media would have made a difference for Kubrick and his film at the time, but Harlan certainly has a point.
By not talking to the media, a hopelessly one-side view of a situation can evolve, which may well include a fair sprinkling of conjecture, exaggeration and other unhelpful elements for your product or brand. By participating in the media process, there is a chance to, at least, influence the story and create a balanced view.
After all, what had Kubrick actually done? He’d made a film that was passed by the censor, though it offended some people, and was linked to so-called “copycat crimes”. Facing the music and seeking to explain his work could have at least opened up the debate and encouraged more supportive voices to pierce the moral frenzy. Instead, by withdrawing the film and remaining silent, Kubrick – it could be argued – simply fed the mystique around A Clockwork Orange as something “too hot to handle” and tacitly endorsed his detractors’ claims that it was unfit for public consumption.
As an artist, Kubrick – for better or worse – had the freedom to choose the route of non-engagement with the media; ultimately, nobody was being forced to watch his film. Business leaders with a company, products or brand to protect don’t share the same freedom.