How to React to Controversial Topics
When the whole world seems to be taking sides and voicing opinions on controversial issues, should your organization stay silent? Topics like abortion, gun legislation, or climate change may not be a "PR issue" for your company, but does that mean silence is an appropriate option?
In this episode, Abbie Fink and Dr. Adrian McIntyre talk about when and how to take a stand in a contentious media environment, including how to talk to your internal teams about challenging topics.
If you enjoyed this episode, check out the PRGN Presents podcast, hosted by Abbie Fink, featuring conversations about PR, marketing, and communications with members of the Public Relations Global Network, "the world’s local public relations agency.”
- "More Than a Statement" by Autumn Jarrett
- "Now is the Time to Be Authentic" by Annelise Krafft
Need to hire a PR firm?
We demystify the process and give you some helpful advice in Episode 19: "How to Hire a Public Relations Agency in Arizona: Insider Tips for Executives and Marketing Directors"
Copper State of Mind is a project of HMA Public Relations, a full-service public relations and marketing communications firm in Phoenix.
The show is recorded and produced in the studio of PHX.fm, the leading independent B2B podcast network in Arizona.
It has been said that silence is golden, and sometimes that's true. But as 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 and what we should do about it -- the question of whether or not companies and individuals should, and could even, remain silent on these topics is an important one. The role of PR is often to manage communication, often to direct and help executives strategize about what to say and when. But that's not easy, and it's certainly not easy when controversial issues in a very charged environment dominate so much of the media and news cycle. Today's episode of Copper State of Mind is a little bit different. We are going to talk about objectivity, neutrality, whether or not you should or even can stay silent on some of these issues. Our host of course, is Abbie Fink, Vice President and General Manager of HMA Public Relations. And I have questions for Abbie, I want to know how she thinks about these issues. They're certainly not easy. They're certainly important. They affect the lives of hundreds of millions of people. And so Abbie, "what's on your mind" is the question on my mind. I know we usually say that at the beginning of the show here, but I want to start with this. Abbie, you got into public relations ... you often tell the story about how as a young girl, you had a problem with the way your school had canceled the dance, and you took a stand and did something about it. You used that as your origin story. So you're someone who sticks up for things when you see that they're right or wrong, right?Abbie Fink:
Most of the time, yes. That role of advocacy is so important in communications. My sixth grade story was not, I didn't know then it was going to lead me on a path to a career. But yes, it's important to be, as a friend of mine says, an upstander instead of a bystander. When you see things that need to be addressed, you should be the person that does it.Adrian McIntyre:
Now without getting into ... This is not a show about the overturning of Roe v Wade. This is not a show about gun legislation. This is not a show about climate change. In other words, we're not here to share our opinions about these topics and try to defend those points of view. We are here to talk about the difficulty of navigating an environment where everyone has an opinion. By the way, some of those people are just flat wrong. I think we should just say that.Abbie Fink:
But we're not going there.Adrian McIntyre:
We're not going there. It's funny because you mentioned earlier today, we were talking about this, that the word that we should use is controversial. And I said, "Well, it's only controversial if you accept that maybe both sides are valid and clearly one side is wrong."Abbie Fink:
Abbie, you represent clients and you advise clients. You also have your own opinions. The question of how to navigate this, is being apolitical even an option anymore, is really important. So why don't we just start with that. 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 does this make you think about your professional obligations?Abbie Fink:
And it's such a good question. And honestly, the answer evolves. It's an evolving response. But I think where I fall back on, is this idea of authenticity. And the circumstances that are circulating right now, in our timeframe right now, we want to react. And we oftentimes have a very quick reaction to the news that we're hearing either side, wherever you fall on it. And we should say something, we should issue a statement, we should post something on Facebook and maybe you should. But I want a step backwards and look at it and consider it from an authentic point of view. And what does making a statement mean? What will the results of making that statement do for your organization? And then recognizing that if you... This isn't whether you do it or don't do it, it's about the impact that that will have. And so there's been a lot of conversations amongst my colleagues over the last several days about, should we be saying something? Should I allow my employees to say something? What if my employees have differing opinions from my opinions, or what if what they say is in conflict with what a client would believe in? And it's this roundabout discussion and they're all very valid questions. And I settle back on this, "What do we stand for as an organization, and are we and will we stand for this particular viewpoint now and forever more?" I mean, however we choose to react at this particular moment on a particular topic, or this particular topic, does it align with our business principles? Does it speak to who we are as an organization? Does it encapsulate who we are both as a business and the individuals that we interact with?Abbie Fink:
And when you can answer those questions and confidently believe in what you're saying, then by all means, be out there and do something. I think consumers are holding businesses to a higher standard. They are expecting large brands and large corporations to take a stand. The new cycle immediately following the decision on Roe v Wade had a whole list of businesses that were going to, on both sides. "We will support this. We will support that. We will provide for our employees. We will do this. We will do that." And for as many organizations as you might agree with on the way they were standing, there are likely that many that you disagree with and the business themselves needs to make that decision. The toughest part, I think for a consultant, such as myself, is when personal viewpoint differs from potentially corporate viewpoint and the guiding principles of what our clients are doing or saying. Now, let me talk about that a little bit. I don't always have to agree with a direction that a client may choose to take. But what I do have to agree with is that I can stand in principle with what they're deciding to do. It might not be my advice. It might not be how I would approach it, but that we've come to this conclusion and this is what's going to be the case. And so if I'm going to be a spokesperson for an organization, or I am going to be front and center on the internal communications of what's being... I need to know that I can be comfortable with the position that I'm taking. And in the event that I cannot, then I am no longer the right person to be having these discussions. I can't advise you correctly. And my advice is not in line with where you are as an organization. And there's just as much value in that as proceeding. And so I advise in this conversation around these more controversial, politically charged conversations that ask us to think politically how we believe. What our moral and ethical compass might tell us to do? What society believes is the right answer? What is my personal opinion? And determine if there is a place for those things to come together and be able to make a statement, share information that you can stand up for and stand beside in the days to come, in the moments after you share that information. And it's tough, it's a tough place to be.Adrian McIntyre:
Certainly from a media perspective, I think it's important to understand how significantly different the context is in 2022 than it was in 1952, or '62, or something, some imagined "golden age" where there were only three channels and a bunch of white guys decided what was going to be on TV. And they were "objective" about their presentation of it. I think it's important to understand that that objectivity was always quite narrow and privileged in what it looked at, but the attempt to not take a side, as a legacy newsroom editorial policy, has shifted over time. Although, I'm sure I'm sure there are leaders in the media that would want to debate this endlessly. What we've seen is the emergence of, what I personally call, the outrage economy. And what I mean by that is, business models that are driven by the emotional reactions of the people consuming their product. And this is not one side or the other side of our political spectrum, it's literally everybody. Makes more money, the more angry and afraid, and so on that you are, the more glued you are, the more you return to consume the product, the news, the media. This changes things. So we now have an increasing polarization. That's absolutely clear. I'm not sure if that's good or bad, but in any case, it is what it is. The media and the consumption of the media is creating these increasingly polarized audiences. Fine. Our goal as communicators is to communicate, right? We still need to get the right message to the right person in the right place at the right time so that the businesses that we work with get the business results that they want. In other words, we're trying to navigate this mine field as it changes underneath us. Do you think the increasing polarization of media, more generally, and audiences, for sure in particular, changes how you have to think about this. In other words, does that back you into any kind of corner, or do you think you're still able to rise above that as a matter of principle?Abbie Fink:
Well, there's a lot in that question. I need to believe that objectivity still exists in the media and that consumers have a responsibility for getting their content in a variety of different places. Now that's a lot to put on the consumer, we all tend to go to the thing that appeals to us the most, whether we're talking about news or our favorite coffee shop. I mean, we're going where we feel they align with what I think about. But smart news consumers should take advantage of the multiple ways that we can get information and to form their own opinion about particular topics based on their ability to find out information. Can we rise above it? I think we have to. I think we have to try to do everything that we can to do that. The work that I do and my agency does is, you use the word apolitical. We don't do politics. We don't do work within the political structure. We don't work with candidates and things like that. We work with more business type products.Adrian McIntyre:
And by the way, there are PR agencies that do do that.Abbie Fink:
That are specifically working on issues and candidates and campaigns, and things of that nature.Abbie Fink:
Right, and do it very well. And do it very well and should continue to do that work because those things need to be amplified as well. But I think as an industry, the communications industry, as a whole has to continue to look at this from a... We need to be objective. We need to be presenting information and not opinion. And that's where they think the breakdown happens, is that opinion becomes the information and becomes the prevailing thought based on what's broadcast each evening or what we can read in the newspaper. In my early career, there were only a small number of television stations. There was one or two radio stations. There was one daily newspaper. And to the extent that was your media outlets, you were being fed information through their filter. You may not have realized it because there wasn't anything else to compare it to. But today's news consumer has a plethora of media outlets for them to get their information from. And both the traditional printed newspaper, the magazines, the broadcast outlets, what we can see in our social media feeds to some extent is more opinion than fact. 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 we're going to issue a statement is not the day the statement needs to be issued. It needed to have been discussed. Are we going to be in this discussion? How are we going to be there? What's our policy's going to be? Are we prepared for the pushback that could, or couldn't occur? Have we informed our employees and our other stakeholders that we're going to be doing this? It's not waking up that morning and saying, "This decision was made and here's our statement." That's where we get in trouble as businesses, is that knee jerk reaction versus having a thoughtful conversation wherever you're going to fall, but have it so that everyone involved with it is comfortable that that's going to be the public stance on a particular issue and be prepared for the support from some and the anger from others, because it will happen. Both sides of these more controversial issues will present themselves.Adrian McIntyre:
Some of these specific issues do become a PR challenge or opportunity for specific companies, specific clients of a PR firm or agency. Others of them are not a PR issue for the company, but the company may have a position or a point of view or think they should develop one and communicate that. 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, 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 Twitter and everywhere. What's the role the PR professional in helping that company navigate through these questions? Should you develop a position? Should you communicate that position? How should you communicate that position? Is staying silent really the best option, is that even ethical when the issue at hand affects so many people, et cetera, et cetera?Abbie Fink:
Well, and staying silent in itself is a statement, right?Adrian McIntyre:
I mean, no statement is a statement, if you want to carry that out. Well, you started that by categorizing us as counselors and advisors. And that's really where that name comes into play is that if we have established this relationship in such a way that we are seen as a trusted advisor and a trusted counselor, on all sorts of business decisions, they don't have to be controversial in nature. That when something more controversial presents itself, our viewpoint is valued by that company, the decision makers at the company. And I think the top of mind things that happen in those discussions, again, rely back on who you are as an organization and what you stand for and why this particular issue is where you are going to make a statement. And is what you are saying in line with who you are as an organization. But I think the toughest part for this is, the business may make a statement, but it's truly not the business, a business doesn't make a statement. It's the people behind that business that have made that decision. And so for me, that means the people have to be part of this decision making. So it can't just be CEO of company says, "This is what we're going to say and put it out on all of our social channels." We need to be talking to our teams and individuals in our company who proudly say, "I work for X company," and need to still be able to say, "I proudly work for X company, and this is what they're doing as it relates to this particular product or process." Doesn't mean everybody's going to agree with you and the likelihood is that not everybody will agree with you. But are you willing to stand up for that particular issue and follow it all the way through? And those are the brands, I think, that that we as consumers stick with. I don't have to agree with you, but I have to support the fact that you had an opinion and that you chose to abide by it. Again, personal opinions versus what is right for the business are often in conflict with each other. Up until recently, and let's just say maybe in the last 15 or years or so, we didn't talk about some of these things at all, right? You didn't know if I was registered to vote and/or under what party I was registered to vote. You didn't know if I practiced a religion or not. We didn't discuss those things in, as my father would say, polite company, we didn't do that. It wasn't anybody's business. We didn't talk about those kinds of things. Well now, it's so much a part of daily conversation. And it's partly because we have so many access points to information talking about politics and registering to vote, and did you vote, and what candidates and issues like what we're seeing. It's just right there in our faces all day, every day. And so we can't help but talk about it. You and I had a 40-minute conversation before we started recording about this topic, because you can't help but have it. And it's balancing the need to say something with, what are we going to say? And is it the right time and the right place for that to be said? There's no right or wrong answer, which is the difficult part. But if you're going to do that, be confident and be sure that you are going to stand by those statements forever more.Adrian McIntyre:
It's interesting, I just had a thought. I'm not sure that the historian or sociologist in me could actually back this up, but I think I have a hunch at least. So I'll air it as a hunch. But I think if we look at how some of those workplace norms developed, it really is in an industrial age where the nature of the work itself and why people were gathered together in this particular place, whether it was a factory or an office, or a government building, or whatever, meant that the work itself was of a particular kind. And that work doesn't really happen so much anymore. In fact, so much of the work we do does, in fact, touch on "soft topics". And there is a lot of crossover between what's going on outside the building and what's going on inside the building. And certainly as workers have gotten more rights and more access to unions and other kinds of ways of representing themselves to themselves and to the company and to the outside world. There's been just a lot of crossover. So the idea of, you go to work, you do your job, and you go home. That kind of job doesn't exist so the nature of the workplace itself has changed and people do have identities. They've always had, but people do have identities. People like to deride identity politics, fine, but people still have identities. They still have a way they think of themselves, and they want to be thought of, and the way they want to interact with others. And what has them feel seen and heard and known versus what has them feel alienated and suppressed and what workplace... And although I'm using fuzzy, left-wing sociology words here, what workplace wouldn't want people to feel seen and heard and known? That's what drives retention. That's what drives performance. Like, come on. This is not a partisan thing, right? Humans need to be known and appreciated. We've talked about this endlessly. So in an environment where personal politics, identity, structural issues that affect people's real lives, economic issues, et cetera, all these things are intersecting in workplaces. And as business leaders, executives, the decision makers have to confront, all right, what do we do now? How do we represent ourselves to ourselves, but also to the world? That makes the role of the PR advisor or the in-house communicator, all that much more important. But you're not necessarily trained in psychology, sociology, history, et cetera. You're not a therapist and you're not an activist. I mean, maybe you are both. Not you personally, but maybe someone listening to this is one or both of those things. Okay, great. But in your role as a communicator, you're there to help think through the communication itself. It's just complicated. How do you handle that?Abbie Fink:
Well, it's extremely complicated. And I guess where I would go with this is, let's think about the internal discussion first, right? So you're a big business, you're a small business, you're an entrepreneur with three employees, wherever you fall in that spectrum, you have to take the pulse of your organization and see where those individuals are falling. Now, it is not, I don't think it's appropriate to go into the workplace and say, "So, Adrian, how do you feel about...," fill in the blank, as the owner of the company or as the boss. It's not my business to ask you those questions. But it should be my business to create an environment where that conversation can take place, that, as you said, if they bring their authentic self to the office, then some of these things have to be there. And we have to create an environment that allows those types of conversations to take place without judgment and without ramification for the belief. And the likelihood is for the four people that are in a particular room, there's going to be four different viewpoints of what an issue like what we're talking about, may mean. They are going to bring their personal viewpoint and their personal opinions to the table. It just has to happen. So we have to create space for that conversation to happen and it can happen in a safe way and that judgment is not being passed. If you and I disagree, we need to be able to disagree and still be colleagues and still continue to work together. And if, as the business owner, I am creating a viewpoint that is in counter to yours, and then I have to allow you the opportunity to... allow, that's not quite the word I want to use, provide you with an opportunity to have your viewpoint heard, support that and have no ramifications as a result of differing from the supervisor's. You as the individual, make the decision if you can continue to be part of a team that is so different from yourself, right? "These individuals and I do not agree on this fundamental piece of information, and I need to move along." Great, then do it in a way that's professional and done correctly, and is based on a solid foundation that you can stand by, that you've made that decision. The team that's remaining needs to respect that you've made that decision as a result. I would rather, truly if I'm going to be talking about these things, I would really rather be focusing on the impact they're making on the individuals that are part of my team. What I bring to the table, my experiences, my viewpoint is just one example of how this information gets heard and how it lands on particular people. And policies can be created and information can be shared in all sorts of ways that are taking a stand without posting something on Facebook, right? There's a lot of ways to empower individuals, to have these opinions and have these opinions be made public that doesn't mean shouting them from the rooftops, unless that's what they choose to do. So it's one of the more difficult things that communications professionals have to deal with is this controversial information that has so many different perspectives. This is not fact based. This is very much opinion and emotional decision making. And there's not a chapter in my PR textbook that says what to do in the event of something that causes such angst in the office. There's just not. So it has to be a mindset of respect for individuals' opinions, that the authenticity of our organization is such that we respect those differences and that the differences are what make us a stronger company and make us a better team, because we come to things with different viewpoints. And you and I can disagree on a particular belief, but we respect our company. We want to work together and we can move forward from what that looks like. I know that's not easy. And I know that I can sit here behind the microphone and talk about all this. In practice, it becomes more difficult, but we have to start it somewhere and here seems like the best place to do that.Adrian McIntyre:
I think the practice that you're pointing to is the practice we all can engage in to great benefit. And that is navigating difference without adding antagonism to it. I mean, difference is a fact. There are differences. There are so many differences. When someone wants you to believe that this or that difference should now be a problem or a threat or something, that person has an agenda. I don't think we, as individual human beings in this life together, need to buy into that at all. And we can begin to discover and appreciate those differences. And it's going to make us uncomfortable because it means that if I'm taking difference seriously, I take seriously the opinion of somebody who I profoundly disagree with -- and who I may actually think is perpetuating the oppression of hundreds of millions of people. But yelling at that person, or being righteous about it, doesn't solve the problem. Doesn't get us anywhere. So I don't think we need to tolerate ... this is where it gets messy, right? I don't think we need to tolerate truly diabolical and disastrous points of view. And at the same time, I don't think that we should pretend that we don't have an opinion just to try to avoid rocking the boat or not alienating our customers or anything like that. Neither of those options seem right. So the middle ground somewhere is where we need to end up.Abbie Fink:
It is. And as I started the conversation, I don't know that there is a best practice, a tried and true, a chapter in the PR textbook that says, "This is what you have to do." And I think it's evolving. I think conversations like this didn't necessarily happen 10, 12, 15 years ago. Again, we kept a lot of our personal opinions private. And there were still decisions being made, legislative decisions were being made and such, and they were impacting us and such, but we didn't come to work outraged in wanting to discuss it in the same way that I feel like we are now, because we maybe have created opportunity for people to feel empowered, to make their opinions known in a very vocal, loud, demonstrative way. And it's respect, it's authenticity, it's honoring a different opinion. It is allowing you and I to disagree. And I don't have to like your opinion, but I can still like you.Adrian McIntyre:
Up until the moment when you can't.Abbie Fink:
Right. And when I can't, it has nothing to do with all of this, right? But it's such a difficult conversation to have. And it's because there's, for everything I'm saying here, I could have a different discussion with someone else in their viewpoint. "You know what, you're right, I don't know. Maybe this isn't the right approach." We have to start it somewhere. Again, to me, it's respecting the viewpoint. It's finding a place for that information to be. If we're keeping this at the business level, you have a team of individuals, all of which are coming to your workplace from different backgrounds, different perspectives, different experiences, and those experiences might not align with yours, but that doesn't mean it's right or wrong. It's just different. And what we do now organizationally, what we do politically on some of these things is really to be determined and where companies and individuals choose to align themselves and participate in the process is yet to be seen. And we could probably talk about this again a month from now and have a very different show because other things will have happened that will inform what we're thinking about today. And this conversation is very much opinion driven. This is, again, it's not textbook responses, but my opinions are based in my experiences, and that's practicing what I just said we need to be doing, which is bringing those to the forefront for discussion.