Words as Weapons: Weighing Controversy’s Place in PR


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Beth Monaghan

Do words have the power to harm? The political climate in the United States during the past year has led to intense rhetoric on both sides of the aisle, fraught with ample references to militant actions. It came to a fever pitch following the tragic shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Ariz., which spawned many articles about the topic of rhetoric and the power of words.

For communicators, this is an important conversation. Gone are the days of the filter of the free press. It still exists, of course, but social media, 24-hour-a-day news cycles and sleepless bloggers have brought forth a new world of unfiltered content.

Matt Bai’s New York Times article, “A Turning Point in the Discourse, but in Which Direction?,” published a few days after the Tucson tragedy, was a good example of traditional media's measured analysis. He wrote, “The problem here doesn’t lie with the activists like most of those who populate the Tea Parties, ordinary citizens who are doing what citizens are supposed to do—engaging in a conversation about the direction of the country. Rather, the problem would seem to rest with the political leaders who pander to the margins of the margins, employing whatever words seem likely to win them contributions or TV time, with little regard for the consequences.”

Pandering to the margins is an exercise in leveraging controversy for gains in broad awareness. Controversy can be a boon to communicators. Our job, after all, is to elevate conversations and points of view above the din. The din is a powerful obstacle; in an age of 140 characters, smartphones, iPads and you name it, it is hard to be heard. Controversy almost always breeds interest, and smart communicators know how to leverage it well.

Let’s take another example from the world of politics. During the 2010 midterm elections, I could not get away from coverage about the Tea Party (no one could), but was the news coverage proportionate to the party’s prominence? I doubt it. The Tea Party just understood the controversy principle. To rise above the din, you must say something contrarian, controversial or extraordinarily interesting. And “interesting” is much harder than “controversial.”

There is an appropriate role for controversy in many kinds of industry conversations. It is certainly not the proper path for every company or campaign, but an exercise in identifying the things that make you different in ways that matter is critical if you want your target audiences to pay attention. However, frequently the most extreme points of view garner the most attention simply because they are extreme.

We live in an age where “news” is defined by an amalgamation of professional and “citizen” journalists. This means that depending on what you are reading, fact-checking does not always happen. Consumers must be more cautious about which sources to trust.

While reporters like Bai will continue doing his research and writing thoughtful, balanced stories, there are lots of other outlets that exist solely to advance an agenda. As communicators increasingly become creators of original content that promotes our clients’ points of view, we have the responsibility to balance the need for visibility with the need for accountability and responsibility. We need to push ourselves to take the hard route to getting out the right message in the right way.

Beth Monaghan is co-founder and principal of InkHouse, a boutique public relations and social media agency serving technology, consumer, healthcare and financial services companies. She is also a contributing blogger for Business Insider. She can be reached at Beth@inkhouse.net. 

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