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How to deal with a takeover rumour: Don't

At a stock exchange presentation on the role of directors in takeover situations, we chatted afterwards about those rumour questions we all get from time to time:
  • Is it true that you’re taking over XYZ?
  • Is it true you’re being taken over by XYZ?
  • Is it true that the business is for sale?
  • Is it true that you’re about to make an acquisition?
A lot of people fall into the trap of issuing an emphatic denial when there is no truth to the rumour, but fudging when there is some substance, and in effect confirming the rumour, which might have disastrous consequences.

The best way to deal with rumours like that is to say nothing - always and consistently. Do it right from the start. Whenever I'm approached with some question about acquiring or selling a business, my answer is always the same:

‘It’s our policy to neither confirm nor deny such matters, and we apply this policy whether or not there is any substance to rumours.’

This gives nothing away, and it also says we follow this rule all the time - an important rider. 
I use a similar statement when asked by the media about our clients:
 ‘It’s our policy to not discuss any client’s business or their dealings with us, unless the client has given their permission.‘

In both cases, the answer is professional and honest. Most enquirers will respect you for giving such a clear, firm response. Sometimes a journalist will try a second line: “Well, if it’s not true, why not just say so?” Don’t be sucked into that logic. Just repeat your standard response. Then when you really do have a secret to keep, your standard response will be credible. This isn’t being devious or dishonest. It’s just that some things have to be kept confidential until the appropriate time to reveal them.

First published 25 July 2007