Reacting to Controversial Topics

June 20 2024

The world continues to face wave after wave of controversial news stories and polarized opinions on a whole variety of issues — from guns, to abortion, to the nature of climate change, the presidential election, war.  The role of public relations is often to manage communication, to guide our executives on what to say and when. But when the topic is considered controversial by many, that’s not an easy thing to do.

As you see the news headlines and the stories being reported, and as you see the outrage on social media from a variety of different perspectives and points of view,

what are our professional obligations when advising our clients on how to react?

Should the company or organization issue a statement?  Should you, personally, share your opinion online? What about your employees, are they free to post an opinion? What if it differs from the company’s stance?

The answer lies with authenticity and transparency.  When thinking about whether to issue a statement consider what you stand for as an organization, and what has been your position on topics like this in the past.  And if you do choose to respond, is the statement something that you can stand behind for the long haul.

Consumers are holding businesses to a higher standard. They are expecting large brands and large corporations to take a stand.

But the responsibility of how we communicate information and whether or not to be part of a dialogue on subject matters that are considered controversial happens before a controversial topic presents itself. The day to decide if you are going to issue a statement is not the day the statement needs to be issued.

What’s the role of the PR professional as that outside sounding board, as that consultant and advisor to a company who’s trying to think through some of these provocative, controversial and very heavily charged topics, not because always the topic itself is charged, but because there is an audience that has been activated and polarized and is out there already raging on X and everywhere. What’s the role of the PR professional in helping that company navigate through these questions? Should you develop a position?

These questions and more are discussed during this week’s episode of PRGN Presents. No guest this time, just me and our producer, Adrian McIntyre, talking about how to talk about controversial topics.

If you enjoyed this episode, please follow the PRGN Presents podcast in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, or any other podcast app. We publish new episodes every other Thursday. To have them delivered automatically and free of charge, just choose your preferred podcast player from this list, open the app, and click the button to “Follow” or “Subscribe” to the show:

Abbie S. Fink
President, HMA Public Relations
Abbie S. Fink, president of HMA Public Relations, has been with the firm since 1993 and boasts more than 30 years of varied marketing communications experience for private and public sector clients as well as nonprofits and Tribal Nations. HMA Public Relations is a founding member of PRGN. She is host of PRGN Presents; a past president of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) Phoenix; a member and past board member of PRSA Counselors Academy; and a past chair of the PRSA Western District. Fink has received the PRSA National Patrick Jackson Award for Distinguished Service and the PRSA Phoenix Percy Award, the chapter’s highest honor.

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