Navigating sensitive topics isn’t easy, particularly when a brand has to do it out of necessity rather than choice because it operates in a “sensitive” category. As a publicist, you are talking with the media daily as they are the gatekeepers when it comes to deciding if they are willing to include your client in their media coverage. If you are a social media manager, your conversations are with influencers who are promoting your client’s product. To keep these relationships on a positive note, it is necessary to know how to approach conversations on polarizing topics because it is not always known where the editor or influencer stands on a particular issue. The last thing you want to do is jeopardize your professional relationships.
At Konnect, we have been working with brands that sell adult toys, alcohol, and cannabis-based products (among other brands), and as you can imagine, not everyone is open to talking with a stranger about these fields. Additionally, there have been many occasions, especially in the past year, when something happened in the outside world – the global pandemic, a natural disaster, country-wide racial discrimination, and the presidential election that heighten the sensitivity of many topics. Regardless, there is still work to be done and results to show to your clients.
Talking about a “taboo” topic
One of the companies we work with is an international adult toy brand that offers some fantastic products for both men and women. Even though we live in the 21st century, intimacy is still perceived by many as something uncomfortable to engage in. Many A-list national outlets understand the need to talk about adult-related topics to make them less taboo and open the door to a broader conversation. However, you will not always pitch to an editor who is aligned with a particular brand, product, or topic. You might pitch it to an editor that you have never worked with and do not know their opinion on the subject matter. Perhaps, they are not comfortable talking with a stranger about taboo topics, and that’s fair. If they come back saying that a subject is not aligned with them, do not get discouraged. Instead, approach this obstacle with empathy. It might be an excellent opportunity to ask what are some topics they are comfortable working with. When asking these questions, you will learn the outlet’s preference and the writer’s, which will help you continue building that relationship without crossing a boundary or being inappropriate.
Navigating sensitive conversations
Inarguably, the world has gone through a lot in the past year. At Konnect, like everyone else, we were affected by these events, and we’ve had to adjust our client’s PR and digital strategies as they pivot their campaigns to align with what has been happening.
When it came to talking with the media, it was more necessary than ever to understand that they are probably experiencing the same struggles or worse. That meant connecting with journalists on an even deeper level and understanding that they might not be as responsive as usual since they might have been navigating difficult situations too. The “hope you are well!” email opening became a little redundant as not everyone was doing well, and we needed to acknowledge that. More than ever, a publicist needed to be careful about initiating a conversation pertaining to specific products in the current climate. Remember, not every editor was going to be receptive to certain subject matters, and some declined to be involved. We had to prepare to receive unfavorable feedback, a bit of straightforwardness which added an additional hurdle to overcome. When met with these situations, it was best not to push the issue to preserve the professional relationship. However, it is also essential to know when it is not appropriate to pitch altogether.
There have been incidents of mass shootings and other tragedies where the local community focused on processing and grieving. As a publicist, you should know that it would not be appropriate to pitch a story or a product to that community at that time. It would be best to avoid being perceived as tone-deaf and insensitive to the seriousness of the situation, especially during a time of cancel culture. Ultimately, if you work in public relations or handle social media, it is crucial for you to understand the news cycle and stay on top of current events, both nationally and internationally.
Having a new approach
On a brand level, 2020 showed us that brands need to be flexible in adjusting their campaign and messaging to avoid being perceived as callous and capitalizing on the events. For example, many brands showed their support for the Black Live Matters movement on their social media. Some have been very vocal about ways they are supporting the cause, from donating to black-owned businesses, increasing racial diversity within the company, and encouraging education on the matter. When it came to the presidential elections, likely the most talked-about election yet, many brands abstained from sharing their opinions as they understood that their customers could have a different viewpoint, and potentially starting an argument would cause more harm than good.
As a publicist, your number one role is to create relationships with editors and guide your clients towards positive coverage. These goals should be reflected in your day-to-day practices.