How to communicate when you’re banned from saying anything

Defence technology company Xtek's Philippe Odouard explains how to communicate when, for security reasons, you're banned from revealing all details of your company's work.

The two most under-appreciated communications tools at your disposal are empathy for the media and trust in the audience. That’s the lesson I’ve learned from a career in the defence industry, because we often can’t say much about what we do.

Being a CEO of a publicly-listed company, you are constantly at the behest of parties wanting to know information. Investors, brokers, the media, family, friends. For most public entities, this is easily met: sign a new deal, announce all the details and everyone knows everything all at the same time.

But things are a little different in more sensitive sectors. My company, Xtek, is a supplier of equipment in the defence industry, and hence, we are limited in what we can and can’t say, for reasons of national security.

This makes complete sense, because of course the security of a country comes before a company’s desire to promote themselves. But it does make things tricky, because on the one hand, you want the relationships within the sector to continue unabated, and the easiest way to ensure that is to ruffle as few feathers as possible, importantly those of your customers.

But on the other hand, how do you continue to fund your operations as a listed company if you can’t tell investors or brokers or the media the specifics of a deal?

Our announcements can be hyper-sensitive and often substantial. But we aren’t able to reveal things like end customer or specific orders. For instance, we could not say ‘Queensland Police’, we’d have to say ‘a police force’.

In these announcements, we tend to show an amount, and can say that ‘equipment’ has been bought for a ‘government department’. So it’s very bland and non-specific.

This is very frustrating for everyone, including media and investors. It’s a pain, but we don’t have a choice. The figure may satisfy investors, but for the press, it doesn’t make for sexy news.

So how do you market yourself when you can’t say anything? In a previous job, when I was making parts for the F-35 joint strike fighter, I had a crew visiting from the ABC. I showed them around, but they wanted to see inside the factory. This was impossible as it was not for public consumption, let alone television.

So we worked with the journalists. We asked: “What could we do that would be compelling for your audience?” We filmed in front of the closed hangar and, much like those famous dentist ads, said ‘we can’t show you, but there’s work happening on the on other side of this door, it’s top secret.’

These are the kinds of tricks we can pull. It was quite a powerful piece. But you’ll only find them by putting aside your fear and listening to the media about what they needed to make it work.

When it comes to our investors, or our target audience, the position we have taken is we allude to the significance of a deal we’ve done without actually mentioning it. This is so that we meet our disclosure obligations on the ASX, without compromising national security.

The lack of details can understandably leave them feeling confused about exactly where our company is at and where it’s going. The best way to address that is face-to-face contact. It builds trust better than any medium.

The more time we invest talking to our investors face-to-face, the more they’ll take our short ASX statements at face value.

If companies that have free reign over what they can say to market their activities appreciated the value of following up with a personal touch, their messages will resonate for much longer.

It also means you’ve got goodwill to draw on when things go wrong, which they sometimes do. You can’t build lasting goodwill with a press release.

Philippe Odouard is chief executive of defence technology company Xtek.


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