This short guide is an introduction to handling communications that deal with a sensitive subject or issues about which people hold strong views.

It includes advice about finding and preparing case studies.

Do your research and understand the issues

It’s vital you start by making sure you understand the topic and the issues related to it. You don’t need to know every detail but be aware of the basic facts, relevant terminology and the current issues the organisation or its beneficiaries face.

Think about groups and individuals that may disagree with your standpoint and the responses they might make to your communications. Consider those who share your views and whether you could involve them in your campaign.

Carry out a Q&A to spot potential flashpoints

You need to consider all of the parties who could be impacted by or react to your communications: the public, media, stakeholders, funders and supporters, for example.

Carry out a ‘risk assessment’ to identify potential flashpoints and establish a set of responses. For example, if you’re releasing a research paper that conflicts with or is critical of an established policy you will need to have your arguments established and be confident of your position.

While you don’t want too many cooks, think broadly about who in your organisation you should involve. Your Q&A also needs to bear in mind the news agenda and the current political climate as these can change the context your communications appear in.

Establish your key messages

Deciding on your key messages will help you focus on the issues involved and the position you want to take. Use agreed terminology that both staff and service users are happy with and make sure everyone has a copy.

When developing your messaging, consider your social media channels. Think about how they might be summarised in a tweet or a short post that could change their meaning or miss the point altogether.

Develop materials with, not about, staff and service users

Case studies, whether they are your beneficiaries or your team, will bring the issues to life so make sure they have sight of draft communications. They will help you spot possible areas of sensitivity or contention. This process will also allow you to rule out any misunderstanding about their views or the issues involved.

Don’t be afraid of discussing their stories fully. The issues are ones they deal with everyday so it’s likely you’ll be more reluctant to talk about them than they will.

Prepare them to speak to the media

Help case studies feel as confident as possible in talking to the media. They will feel supported and will be a far better advocate than someone who has been hurriedly put forward without a proper briefing. Make sure your case studies are aware of the interview process, both for print and broadcast media, and the possible outcomes. While they may get a read-through of an interview, the headline is often beyond the journalist’s control.

Reassure them that their anonymity will be protected, where it’s asked for, and provide them with a Q&A document to help them anticipate questions they may be asked. Provide them with example responses too.

Media training sessions allow them to practice talking about issues that may prove upsetting. This is also a good time for you to check their suitability – the language they use, their ability to stay on message and their confidence.

Establish lines of communication with case studies so you’re aware of any changes in their circumstances. If your topic area means there is a possibility of a crisis or emergency you don’t want to be the last to know.

Don’t forget family members

Encourage spokespeople to consider how sharing their story could impact on their families and friends. Close family may be fully aware of the issues and circumstances but wider family or friends may not. They might not have considered this so be sure they are comfortable before offering them to the media.

Prepare the media

Journalists are increasingly time poor and rely on material that you provide them with. A brief document or comprehensive notes to editors in a press release summarising the key issues can be very helpful to them, and to you, in terms of minimising misunderstanding or misrepresentation.

Include a list of key terms and their meanings. As well as aiding understanding it helps journalists to get spellings correct which is key for search engine optimisation (SEO) of the story.

Keep track of coverage as it appears. It will help you see that your messages are being understood and allow you to make changes if necessary.

Dealing with sensitive subjects

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