Taking a stand without tipping the boat: Strategic planning for sensitive PR issues


We live in a complex society. New thoughts and ideas trend daily, and it may be difficult to tell what stand to take on issues. Apple or the FBI? Trump or Clinton? Did Kesha actually get raped? Were Erin Andrews’ nude videos a publicity stunt, or is she a victim? People are passionate and perspectives abound. These issues will change lives. As a PR professional, how do you respond to sensitive issues? Here are four tips on how to take a stand on these issues, without tipping your company’s boat in the process.

Careful statements by opinion leaders

In any issue, you should always clearly define your position as a brand and explain your motives. Opinion leaders can be instrumental in doing this effectively.

Homosexuality and gay rights is one of the biggest social issues of the century. Last November, leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints made a policy change that would affect same-sex couples and their children. Shortly after the announcement of the policy change, the director of Public Affairs for the church conducted an interview with one of the Apostles and chief leaders of the LDS church in an effort to clarify the policy change. At a time when people both inside and outside the church felt confused and hurt, a clear statement by an opinion leader helped calm the waters.

Erin Andrews, Fox broadcaster and former ESPN reporter, recently claimed that ESPN forced her to discuss her stalker on TV. ESPN quickly responded to the backlash by releasing a statement describing its support for Andrews. It was a simple action, but their statement quickly gained coverage.

Advocates from unexpected sources

People connect better with brands when they feel they can relate to them. One way to do this is showing that you have advocates on both sides of an issue.

For example, in Apple’s fight with the FBI, Apple has received support from unexpected sources. The families of victims of the San Bernardino terrorist attack have expressed support, despite their personal investment in the outcome.  The former chief of the NSA and CIA, whom one might expect to support the FBI, also approved of Apple’s decision.

The LDS church has also made efforts to show that it has advocates on both sides of the issue with gay marriage. For example, the church hosts a website called gayandmormon.org, where homosexual members of the church discuss their trials and share their faith.

Privacy rights, death and homosexuality are very sensitive issues, but when people see these advocates from multiple sources, they rethink their assumptions about the issue and about your company.


Citizens protest the FBI’s demand for an encryption code into Apple phones. (Picture from Creative Commons, Don’t Break Our Phones.)

Compromise and compassion

“When communicating about sensitive issues, the PR professional must check their opinions and ego at the door,” states John Pilmer, CEO of PilmerPR LLC. “You must be able to look objectively through the eyes of those on both sides of an issue and carefully craft responses and messages without severe bias.”

While careful statements can go a long way, actions speak louder than words. Look objectively at an issue and decide when it’s appropriate to compromise.

For example, although the LDS church has taken a firm stand on gay marriage, it has attempted to show good will and acceptance of homosexuals by supporting legislation that promotes gay rights.

In the ongoing legal battle between Kesha and Dr. Luke, Sony attempted to compromise by allowing Kesha to work with other producers. This compromise was rejected as insufficient. Sony is now in a tough position because people are unsatisfied with its response to the difficult issues of rape and defamation.

“The problem often is that aspiring brands wish to be universally loved,” said Nirmalya Kumar, professor of marketing at the London Business School. “Unfortunately, universal love is neither achievable nor desirable. Instead, great brands are loved by some and hated by others because they actually stand for something.”

It’s important to remember, “haters will hate.” As you address sensitive issues, you can’t please everyone. Focus on your most important key publics. Do what you can to be sensitive, but don’t forget that the best brands are the ones that take a stand for something.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *