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The Illusion of Choice: Why Preparing for Difficult Conversations is Key for PR

Walker Sands

Walker Sands

Every communications professional has likely had a moment where, after asking their client (or their boss, for in-house folks) for an opinion on a difficult subject, they were told: “that’s not a conversation we really want to take part in.”

It’s an understandable position. Businesses know that you rarely make in-roads with customers through negativity, and that the safe road is to stay positive.

But recent events should serve as a reminder to communications teams that brands don’t always have a say in which conversations they’re pulled into. When that happens, they won’t have a choice on whether they participate, and all that will matter is what they say in response.

We saw a great example of this at CES this year when Apple, renowned non-participant of the annual consumer tech extravaganza, took out a 12-story billboard in front of the exhibition center that touted the company’s leadership on issues of data privacy. Apple’s shot across the bows ensured that the CES audience – journalists and industry professionals alike – would be thinking about questions over data privacy as they walked the show floor.

For the thousands of exhibitors flaunting their latest connected devices, it’s unlikely that the question “what do you do to protect your users’ data” was one they had answered front-and-center on their marketing materials. But Apple’s bold move made that decision for them, and good communications teams would have been ready for that by ensuring they had a strong, unified position in response.

Another big issue is looming for many businesses, regardless of whether they’d like to discuss it: Brexit. The United Kingdom’s exit path from the European Union on March 29th remains unclear, and while many brands clamored to comment on the immediate aftermath of the referendum in 2016, the potential difficulties facing the UK economy may not be the topic of choice for brands with a stake in the market.

The fact is, though, that communications teams have a responsibility to anticipate the topics that their brands could get pulled into. They need to be honest with the decisionmakers in their business that, while Brexit, data privacy or other sensitive issues aren’t their preferred conversations to have with the media, they are expected to have a substantive and informed position on them if the questions arise.

If communications teams are having trouble convincing those decisionmakers to prepare for difficult conversations, it can help to reinforce the ‘reactive’ nature of these preparations.

Emphasize that such statements and messages would not be offered up willingly, and position them as the communications equivalent of a fire extinguisher or emergency hammer, to be used only when needed. This can help to both soothe the fears of executives wary of discussing difficult topics, and to highlight the necessity of such preparation: to protect your brand.