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The Double-Edged Sword of Hiding Controversial Information

Oct 16, 2012 • blogging, general

Although most companies struggle to make their information visible on Google, at times companies want to do just the opposite: hide information about their company. However, if companies hide the controversial information, they give power to competitors or other groups to control the conversation about the topic.

This dilemma seems like a darned-if-you-do, darned-if-you-don't situation. If you don't publish information about the topic, your readers might stumble onto information elsewhere for their education. That other information might not be the angle and slant you want to take. On the other hand, if you do publish information, you may invite your readers into areas of controversy that you would normally want to avoid. You may introduce your readers to all kinds of issues they never knew existed.

Working for a church makes me all too aware of situations like this. But the scenario certainly isn't unique to a church. Almost every company has its controversial areas. For example, when information came out about the sweatshops and poor working conditions of Chinese factory workers who make Apple products (see this article, for example), I'm sure this information wasn't the messaging that Apple wanted to communicate. Writing about it or not writing about it became a communications problem with no easy solution.

While in Portland last week, I wrestled with this dilemma a bit. My wife regularly reads a Mormon feminist site called Mormon Feminist Housewives, or fMh for short. I ran into an fMh editor at the Lavacon conference, and she invited me to an fMh Portland meetup. It looked interesting.

The group was friendly and gave us a tour of downtown Portland. We ate at a local diner and walked to another place for ice cream. While chatting, I asked the group what the purpose of fMh was. They responded that fMh gives Mormon women a safe space to explore feminism topics within an LDS context. In non-Mormon spaces online, feminists would encourage Mormon women to abandon the faith wholesale. The fMh group doesn't advocate abandoning the faith, but rather gives people a sounding board and group to share information, ideas, and concerns about feminist topics — all within a faith-friendly environment.

I happen to be documenting a new search tool at my work, one that is quite slick and impressive. Curious, I searched for the word "feminism." Although it did return results, none were well-oriented for an fMh context. No articles seemed to address the concerns and issues in a candid, straightforward way. There aren't easily findable, authoritative articles on LDS.org for Mormon women to safely explore feminist topics and concerns.

This is a tough situation. Without the information, Mormon feminists turn to other sources. They may run across "competitor" sites that discourage membership in the Church altogether. If the information were available, Mormon feminists might be able to get "safe" information that helps ameliorate concerns. However, if authorities published extensive information on the topic, they would also bring awareness and attention to it. In fact, there's a whole public-relations dilemma surrounding controversy. Sometimes the more you address controversy, the bigger the controversy becomes (see The Publicity Dilemma). Although as a blogger I favor transparency and open information in dealing with controversial topics, I recognize the dilemma.

As a more technical example, just this week, one of our major apps recently had so many performance issues that we had to -- embarrassingly -- pull it from the app store. The product manager noted the app's absence in a forum post, but this kind of information is visible only to people who regularly read forum threads. We decided to also publish the information in a blog post to increase its visibility -- even though increased visibility will probably weaken our reputation and suggest instability with our apps.

For many people who have older versions of the app, who use it without issue, the news may not enhance their trust with the product. They may read the article and raise an eyebrow, thinking twice about downloading any more apps. But for those who are having issues, the news helps them understand what's going on.

At a previous job in Clearwater, Florida, I worked for a health and nutrition company run by Scientologists. The company founder had some negative press due to an incident in which the founder prescribed medicine to a patient he never saw, and then the patient died. The press (unsympathetic to Scientologists in the first place) ate this up and ruined the doctors' reputation.

As a copywriter for the company, I spent a lot of SEO time and effort trying to push down those negative articles. But for all the effort we made in search engine optimizing his name, we never addressed the lawsuit issue square on. And as such, we relinquished control to competitors to manage the darker aspect of his brand.

Deeper Issues

The problem runs deeper than merely deciding how to treat controversial issues. The larger problem is that companies so frequently fear transparency. Companies prefer to publish sanitized information that portrays them positively all the time. They tend to run from real issues, from anything that doesn't portray them as victor or as the solution.

Unfortunately, this kind of publishing strategy is merely a propaganda strategy. As such, it will never satisfy the independent information consumer. It's not surprising that corporate blogs don't have much influence on readers, because the propaganda  lacks trust and authenticity. Lord Northcliffe, a publishing magnate of the early twentieth century, once said, “News is something someone wants suppressed. Everything else is just advertising.” Advertising and propaganda isn't how you build relationships with customers.

One of the things I like about technical writing is that we enjoy some shelter from this world of advertising and propaganda. In the help file, you can tell the truth, more or less. One topic I try to include is "Known Limitations." This topic always gets a lot of hits. I'm not saying you can be completely candid about your product's shortcomings, but you don't need to dress up the information as much as a marketer might be inclined to do.

Overall, companies need to understand the ramifications of not addressing controversial topics. Without official information, customers turn to other sources. Companies end up abdicating the communication to their direct competitors. Only when the information reaches a crisis do companies often begin to issue communication about the topic. But by then, the reactive approach seems so politically motivated, it's hard to feel the same sense of trust that would have emerged without the forced communication.

I'm not sure how to convince communications departments to talk about real issues. A couple of weeks ago I published a post on our technology blog noting that many of our tools don't work in Internet Explorer 8, even though many of our users are still on XP and therefore only have IE8. The post, a mere three paragraphs, has 48 comments so far and seems to have captured the attention and interest of the audience more than almost any other post. Did the information build trust? Or did it raise awareness about our shortcomings as an IT department? Maybe a bit of both.

When we talk about real issues, it engages readers and customers -- but not always in satisfying ways. Many times transparent, straightforward approaches actually frustrate and infuriate readers. Are we going to make this enhancement? Not this year. Can you do X? No, sorry. Is this an issue? Yes, definitely, and we have no solution. On the other hand, when we sanitize information and publish advertising -- It all works great! You'll love it! We solve your major business problems and save you millions! -- readers skip past it like they do fliers in the mail.

Because I think trust, transparency, and controversy are at the heart of corporate blogging, I'm going to continue this topic in some more posts this week.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer based in the California San Francisco Bay area. Topics I write about on this blog include technical writing, authoring and publishing tools, API documentation, tech comm trends, visual communication, technical writing career advice, information architecture and findability, developer documentation, and more. If you're a professional or aspiring technical writer, be sure to subscribe to email updates using the form above. You can learn more about me here.