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5 Steps to communicating well on controversial topics

The eyes of the world have turned to the October violence in the Middle East, as we wish for safety for all those affected.

I’ve read and considered the language people are using around this issue and how their language becomes part of public discourse as a result of their statements on social media, in op-eds, from interview comments quoted in the media and via other sources. From my alma mater to a college president to Supervisor Dean Preston here where I live in San Francisco to New York University and Harvard students who now face blacklisting in future employment, we’ve seen where individuals or organizations have to apologize or walk language back.

I advise clients on how to develop compelling, persuasive messages to reach audiences — even on the most polarizing, controversial topics — when they need multiple audiences to receive messages well. Whether you work on Israel/Palestine issues or topics such as environmental justice and reproductive health, these principles can guide you the next time you consider how, and if, to use your voice.

Principle 1: Why you, why now?

Organizations speak out on thorny issue environments because they care — or because, well, everyone else is! But if you fail to ask “why us, why now?” you can end up with uninformed or tone-deaf statements. And folks at other organizations might be wondering why you are taking up space if you don’t work on the issue or challenge that’s emerged.

Space is indeed limited. It’s important to remember that audiences don’t scroll through all of social media. Data from 2020-2022 shows that on platforms like X (formerly known as Twitter), U.S.-based users spend an average of just six minutes per day. On a topic like Israel/Palestine, they’re likely to read only a sample of commentary. And when it comes to traditional media placement, such as a quote in the San Francisco Chronicle, remember that reporters looking for comment only have so much space for it. Those with greater access and prominence — such as Supervisor Preston — are frequently more likely to reach a journalist or have one reach out to them rather than, say, a well-regarded yet small nonprofit whose expertise comes from working on Israel/Palestine issues 24/7.

All of this means that it’s important for those who can speak out to consider whether they should speak out … or instead whether they can best advance progress on this issue simply by making space for others or even elevating those individuals’ words and work. So, before wading in, ask yourself:

  • Is this topic central to my mission, and have I spoken about it before today?
  • Am I the best messenger on this topic, or should I make space for others?
  • Which decision-makers (those with power to create the change I seek) and audiences (those who influence decision-makers) do I want to reach? Is my statement really going to engage the audience who needs to take action on this issue or situation?
  • What will I accomplish by commenting on this topic? What is the outcome I want to achieve? How will my comment help to make progress?

Principle 2: Both sides-ing

Statements that try to make everyone happy ultimately make no one happy. These statements usually include sentences that begin with clauses such as “At the same time,” or “Let’s also remember that….”

Both sides-ing leads to a muddled message and negative fallout that leaves audiences feeling unheard or unseen. This result gets in the way of making progress.

Instead, create a firm point of view that conveys your values. Do so sensitively. Being sensitive means you convey your values in a respectful way. For example, acknowledging and mourning the loss of life and conveying hope for a peaceful, nonviolent engagement underscores values such as respect for human life before going on to convey a persuasive point of view and request actions.

Principle 3: Consult and edit — strategically

You probably know a great deal about the issue you’re commenting on. But maybe you’re not an expert. Maybe you only know what you read in the news. Maybe the topic is sensitive, with lots of nuance. And what you say will have an impact on those closest to the issue.

If you’ve asked yourself, “Why you, why now?” and have decided it’s appropriate to move forward, I recommend consulting with individuals who will make sure to capture important nuance. That will ensure your words make progress on your issue or one closely related to your work and don’t create any harm. Examples of individuals you may consult include:

  • People most affected by the topic at hand.
  • Academic experts who focus their work on the topic.
  • Advocates who regularly work for change on the topic.

Remember to be respectful and center those who are most affected by the situation and the sentiment, solution or action you are sharing. You want to not only avoid being tone-deaf or issuing comments lacking nuance, which can lead to backlash; but more importantly, you want to be conscious of the impact your words might have on the lives of others.

When consulting, be strategic about who reviews and who edits. Statements can become Frankenstein’s monster when too many cooks are in the kitchen and all wield an editing pen. Such statements promote vague viewpoints that leave audiences confused — and that can have detrimental effects to engaging them in change-making work. When you must seek feedback, ask for top-line notes — not direct edits. Ask the right questions, such as:

  • Does this capture the nuance?
  • Does it have a firm point of view?
  • Is it sensitive to the circumstances?
  • Does it convey my values?

Offer the editing opportunity to a more limited set of trusted colleagues who can then take those notes in response to these kinds of questions, along with their own views, and improve the copy.

 Principle 4: Build a message with your audience in mind.

Here at Spitfire, we use the Smart Chart to help develop compelling messages in a format called the message box. Using the message box, I encourage clients to:

  • Convey values that you and your audience share to encourage their engagement and open up space for conversation.
  • Include content that overcomes audiences’ barriers to action (without repeating those barriers!).
  • Convey a clear, specific ask so audience members understand what they must do. 
  • Convey a vision of the world if audience members act on that ask so they feel connected to that outcome. 

Many organizations or individuals convey a message because they feel the need to say something but in the process get lost in a haze of editing and forget to check that they have all four of these elements in their message. A statement that includes just one or two of these elements in a vague way misses the mark. You’ve seen statements such as, “We at the Institute express disappointment at the ongoing violence and hope for peace.”

These statements are missed opportunities, at best, and relationship destroyers, at worst, if you’re using your voice and drawing attention away from voices calling for specific action and covering the other message components. Imagine you have a megaphone and can actually reach audiences — even powerful policymakers in far-off nations. What would you say? How would you ensure you care enough to listen? What would those policymakers say back to you in terms of barriers — “yeah, but”? How would you respond, and then what ask would you make? What’s the vision? Make sure to review your statement with an eye for all of these elements.

Principle 5: Consider the outcomes and plan for them

Statements, op-eds and posts have consequences. This is often especially the case on controversial issues. Although they can reach your audiences and spark effective action, they also might anger others and lead to backlash. For example, individuals who are unhappy with what you said may encourage the funders of your nonprofit to direct funds elsewhere.

Consider and plan for the outcomes that may result from your statement. Audiences and decision-makers might like what you have to say, but others might oppose your point of view. These individuals may be opponents or allies who typically agree with you but dislike some component of your message — and become upset and act in response. 

To plan for these kinds of outcomes, consider whom they may affect so you can determine whom to contact in advance to bring them along or to shore up support. For example, you may want to:

  • Give funders a heads-up and speak with them one to one to explain your point of view or help insulate them from pressure that may come from people unhappy with what you’ve said.
  • Give your staff a heads-up and plan to support them. They may endure harassment such as doxxing.
  • Make sure defenses such as cybersecurity are locked down.

In public interest work, we’re usually playing both offense and defense. We’re proactive in our efforts; we’re safeguarding progress; and we’re responding to emergent situations. Before you begin drafting your next response statement, take a moment to consider these steps. Check out the Smart Chart here for a communication strategy blueprint and message guidance. And reach out if you’re seeking help to tackle one of these emergent issues that’s tied to your work. You can reach me via

This entry was posted on Tuesday, October 24, 2023 at 15:15 pm and is filed under Crisis communication and Frame, narrative and message development. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.