communicating sensitive subjects

Communicating sensitive subjects will be an issue for all communicators at some point in their roles. For some it's a regular issue to manage and manage effectively. Follow these top tips and it might make it easier the next time you're called into action.

by Caroline Roodhouse

How do you communicate particularly tough topics?

Sharing any subject of a sensitive nature can be a thorny challenge.

It’s one of the reasons we were so impressed with the entries from the latest comms2point0 UnAwards. Small comms teams from across the country, and individuals with limited support or resources took on some of the most demanding subjects. From supporting young people with additional needs or those in adult social care to tackling excessive alcohol consumption, the challenging complexities of such subjects make these campaigns all the more remarkable.

We’re often asked for support with campaigns that centre on sensitive subjects. Whether that’s religion, environment, crime, public health problems or any other equally delicate matter.

Devising an entire campaign around such issues can be daunting. As individuals, our natural reaction is to shy away from difficult issues - or avoid them altogether. So when the brief demands a full-blown whistles and bells campaign from brand development to digital media, advertising and an array of marketing material, hiding is not an option. Our groundbreaking ‘Let’s Talk About It’ campaign tackling terrorism, extremism and radicalisation was no exception. Just like any project, we must approach it in an authentic, engaging and purposeful way.

Where do we start?

We research, extensively. We get under the skin of every project we undertake. When the subject matter is particularly sensitive, it may require even deeper investigation.

We always explore other industries for inspiration. How are others approaching things? What’s new? What can we learn? Seeing how those from a completely different field set about their own challenges is a great place to begin and introduces a whole new dynamic.

To set the stage with Let’s Talk About It, we held focus groups. We invited along public sector professionals, community leaders, local experts, police and Prevent Coordinators. This helped us to gather real-life perspectives and a fundamental understanding of the subject. We also ensured avoidance of offensive blunders by examining acceptable language and terminology. Clarity was key.

Also, it may seem like an obvious point but before embarking on sensitive projects, it’s important to approach a campaign from a neutral perspective. Muddying the waters with unnecessary attitudes is unlikely to help so we don’t allow personal biases and opinions to influence the project. Setting aside preconceived notions is vital.

Communication and collaboration

Collaborating with key individuals from partner organisationsworked well. Connecting industry influencers ensured that we surrounded ourselves with a network of those in the know. We weren’t alone! As the campaign developed we maintained the support of the police and government agencies who would be signing off the project.

It’s important to remember that our clients can offer invaluable information. Regular meetings and continual conversations enabled us to draw out the fine detail that was important when it came to communicating the key messages.

Achieving the goal

Frequently summarising the progress of the campaignensured it remained on track and addressed the issues. Taking the time to review and reflect on each stage of the project with our client was a key feature of Let’s Talk About It and any other campaign we manage. 

As an ideas agency, it was also important for us to show our own unique personality, ensuring the project reflected the way we do things. With a set aim and defined guidelines, the challenge was to push boundries and present thought-provoking and innovative ideas that would be unconventional yet still achievable. Without such considerations, we’d just be producing another run of the mill campaign. And that’s certainly not our style.

In summary

Tackling tough subjects is not easy. We’ve created a pioneering campaign by seeking inspiration from elsewhere, determining the key messages, undertaking extensive research, understanding the varying audience groups, encouraging stakeholder engagement, gaining the support of key individuals, offering something new and fresh for interest and impact and completing periodic progress checks.

Let’s Talk About It has been a challenging project. But, the tough subject matter has made it all the more fulfilling and we’re so proud to be part of this groundbreaking initiative. Rather than shying away from such a difficult issue, we’ve welcomed and relished such a demanding challenge.

Caroline Roodhouse is Content Creator at Alive With Ideas