My mini-controversy

One of these weekly posts stoked a mini-controversy, and it highlighted for me some lessons about knowing when to hold your ground and when to bow to your audience’s preferences.

Generally speaking, I think we as PR pros are too reticent to advise our organizations to take stands on issues that may annoy some people. The truth is, unless you represent a company such as Walmart or McDonald's, it’s unrealistic to care what everyone thinks.

And that’s why it can be smart PR to be strategic about taking public positions that may push away some people who are not in your target audience, because those positions will likely strengthen your relationship with those who are actually in your core market.

I should have been thinking about that when I wrote the post I sent out back in June.

The subject line was “Tofu has no place at a BBQ.”

The piece was about not offering a bait-and-switch to journalists, and I thought that subject line would grab attention for it. The thought crossed my mind that some followers would be concerned about a pro-meat take, so I included a link to a previous post I’d written admiring the mission and founder of Impossible Foods to give the piece some nuance.

Sure enough, my unsubscribe rate doubled on that email. And I received replies from two people letting me know they were offended. (Interestingly, I also heard from two self-identified vegans who thought it was a fun and clever way to frame my argument, but that’s beside the point.)

This reminded me of another email that yielded double the usual unsubscribes. But the reason for dissatisfaction wasn’t obvious. It was about boosting productivity in the new year by reducing distractions, frequently a popular take among my audience. And then I spotted it:

I had made an offhand reference to reading Barack Obama’s memoir. Obviously some portion of my audience didn’t like that. Doesn’t matter that I’ve read Mitt Romney and George W.’s memoirs, too, I guess.

Although it’s not a big deal to lose a few dozen subscribers from my email list of 10K followers, I learned a useful lesson from these two mini-controversies. Both of those mildly controversial takes were totally unnecessary and not strategic, because neither meets the criteria for when it’s wise to take a stand on a sensitive issue:

  • The issue should be one that you’re passionate about, and your position should represent your core values.
  • The issue should be one that will attract your core audience closer to you.

My business and approach to PR has nothing to do with whether you eat meat or not, or whether you’re a Republican or Democrat. We at MichaelSMARTPR have a big tent :). And neither of those decisions are issues that I feel deeply passionate about one way or the other (although I do have my own personal preference). So in hindsight I should have steered clear of them.

It’s better for me to take stands on things directly related to pitching media, which is what my business is all about:

Both of those takes were somewhat risky – not only do many journalists disagree with them, but also some PR people. I probably lost some followers because of those posts.

But the type of audience I want to serve would be attracted because of those posts. And I felt strongly that those things needed to be said, especially the first one. So those are the kinds of stands I’ll continue to take.

Hopefully the lessons from my mini-controversies provide you a bit of a template when evaluating your own sensitive issues.


This article was originally published on September 29, 2021

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