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Marketing and Communications

College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences


Tips for Communicating Controversial Issues

Communicating Amidst Controversy: Getting Your Point Across Without Making Enemies

Media can help get your information out on controversial issues.

What is controversy?

  • Strongly polarized opinions.
  • High emotions.
  • Opposing sides may use loaded rhetoric to persuade.
Why address controversial issues in the media?
  • Increase awareness of issues.
  • Provide science education to the public.
  • To establish yourself as an expert source.

Why would reporters call me?

  • They want to be fair.
  • They value accuracy.

On controversial topics, it’s usually best to be seen as…

  • Credible.
  • Unbiased.
  • Fully aware of all sides of the issue.
  • Speaking from experience or research-based knowledge.

Should you ever take sides?

  • It’s not news if you stay completely in the middle. You can, however, provide context, insight and analysis when you do.
  • If your research or experience tends to favor one side or another, say so.

Expert vs. personal opinion

  • Expert opinions are research and experience-based. That doesn’t mean they’re always in the middle.
  • Personal opinions need no basis and probably should stay private.

When asked about your (opposing) view…

  • Briefly acknowledge other views, but go back to your message.
  • Don’t dwell on controversy. Steer interview to higher ground.
  • Don’t speculate on goals, attitudes, values or hidden agendas of those who oppose your views.

Reporters may be confrontational...

  • This triggers your emotions, making answers more animated.
  • Keep your cool.

Attack issues, not people

  • Present your data or views and stick to the issue.
  • Don’t slight those with different views.
  • Personal attacks may cause the public to question your motives and objectivity.

What if you are attacked in the media?

  • Sometimes the best response is no response. Continued responses may prolong the attack.
  • Respond only to correct misinformation reported in the news.
  • Op-eds and editorials are a way to respond to attacks. Understand others’ perceptions


Risk = Hazard + Outrage

The Peter M. SandmanRisk Communication Website:
High outrage motivates action and expresses real grievances.
Outrage occurs when risks are perceived as…
  • Involuntary
  • Unnatural
  • Unfamiliar
  • Memorable
  • Dreaded
  • Unknowable

Outrage escalators

  • Not fair
  • No profile
  • “No comment”
  • No compassion
Find ways to reduce and/or avoid outrage...
  • Control
  • Fairness
  • Trust
  • Shared values
  • Transparency
  • A sense that “grown-ups are in charge”
  • Don’t keep secrets.
  • Listen to people’s concerns.
  • Share power and benefits more fairly.
  • Don’t expect to be trusted; focus on being accountable.
  • Acknowledge efforts.
  • Treat adversaries with respect.

Be persuasive

  • Persuasion is not a dirty word.
  • In controversial situations, the “other side” will likely use these techniques.
  • Not likely to change minds of hard-core believers, but could influence masses.
  • Convey your credibility: Why are you an expert?
  • Establish “common ground” with audience.
  • Be objective about the topic.
  • Be likable and dynamic.
  • Establish a sense of urgency.
  • Make sure your message is limited, not global.


  • Keep it cool
  • Keep it conflict-free
  • Keep it contained
  • Stick to the facts.
  • Don’t take opposing views personally.
  • Try to find common ground with those who have opposing views.
  • Be comfortable with your position and with yourself.

Created by Martha Filipic,, 12/2009