Publicity: Planning for Controversy

by Assistant on February 25, 2010

Handling controversy is always difficult, however it can be rewarding and productive if you’re prepared ahead of time. If you are not prepared ahead of time, saying “no comment” or refusing to respond to a media controversy can do a great deal of damage. Refusing to comment to journalists will almost certainly go to your opposition.

Prepare a method for handling controversy in advance. First you should make a list of all the possible controversial issues that could involve your organization. Create your own worksheet for handling controversy so you’ll be ready the moment you need it.

Consider Using these Questions for your Worksheet:

  1. Describe the probable controversy
  2. What facts and figures can you use to respond to an attack quickly?
  3. Where can additional information on this topic be found?
  4. List all the potential leading, difficult, tricky and nasty questions reporters could ask about this controversial situation. Write down your answers and show them to your lawyer. Based on your lawyers feedback, rewrite them. Avoid re-stating misleading and wrong information. Keep your statements positive and focussed on the facts.
  5. Is there any facet of this issue that your lawyer forbids you to talk about with the press?
  6. Is the press likely to favor, take a stand, or be neutral and willing to listen to your position in this controversy? Why?
  7. Who are your potential allies on this issue? If you are unsure you may want to approach other organizations in your industry and get a sense of where they stand now.
  8. Which organizations or individuals are likely to attack you or be your enemies on this issue? Do they have any hidden motives you could expose that would discredit them?
  9. Will the controversy go away on its own; should you ignore it? Why or why not?
  10. Will a response only serve to fuel the fires or reinforce wrong information? Why or why not?
  11. How can you make it look like you are the initiator of the debate, even if you have been attacked?

Some Key information to have on hand:

  • Organization’s stance
  • Problems with their stance
  • Problem resolutions
  • Date
  • Executive’s Name
  • Organization’s stance
  • Problems with this stance
  • Problem resolutions

Rarely does controversy appear from nowhere. Usually, early warning signs appear in news stories generated by your opponents. You can anticipate the opposition and be ready to meet it by taking three steps:

  1. Study the position of the opposition. Learn the arguments of your opponents. What do they object to? What is their motivation? Answering such questions will help you to anticipate their arguments and be ready to respond with arguments of your own or else to seize the initiative by releasing accurate information even before the opposition can release its position.
  2. Know your own organization's position. Developing clear positions, based on careful research, on major and controversial issues will help to provide responses to hostile questions and criticisms when the need arises.
  3. Prepare to act. When a public controversy erupts or a crisis occurs, you must act quickly. Before your organization becomes embroiled in a controversy, have a plan for developing your response, including who should be consulted and who should make the final decision about what is said to the news media.

In a controversy designate a single spokesperson for your organization who should be available to journalists at all times. No one else in your organization should comment on the controversy. Be ready with a supply of press kits and updated press contact lists. If they know about the controversy and understand your position, they will be better able to offer support.

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