How to use controversy in corporate writing

Injecting your writing with honesty, character and a personal point of view will engage your readers and deliver tangible benefits to your business – if you avoid some obvious pitfalls

Unless you fancy yourself as the next Michael O’Leary or Travis Kalanick, the thought of saying anything controversial in public is likely to send you into a cold sweat.

Fear of causing offence ensures that most pronouncements from business leaders are bland and cautious, but in the crowded world of corporate content, wishy-washy no longer cuts it. Original, honest and critical industry voices are what audiences crave; fulfil that brief and they’ll read your words rather than those of your competitors.

A key way to grab attention and stand out is to embrace controversy. Why? Because controversy triggers an emotional response and – done well – will get your brand noticed for all the right reasons.

But what do we mean by controversy? Certainly not being rude for the sake of it or saying something you don’t believe simply to garner clicks.

No, controversy in corporate writing means challenging received opinions or commonly held assumptions, but with the aim of persuading readers to your point of view. It means backing up a unique angle on a story with facts or experience.

Ultimately, controversy in corporate content is constructive criticism, however blunt – and provides a useful foil to more traditional communications messaging.

As the Financial Times says in its advice to aspiring contributors: “Since we aim to stand out, we reject pieces that would fit in. Make it personal. Tell us something others can’t, be funny or trade on who you are… If any like-minded person could have written your piece, then assume someone has.”

Good corporate content is about your audience, not you

Engaging your audience without turning them off starts with choosing topics that your readers care about. This might require you to venture more broadly, beyond the confines of your company and sometimes even your industry, in search of issues that are relevant to your readers.

If you are in a new industry, such as fintech, you will have views about how regulators should approach it, how personal data should be safeguarded, the threat of cyber-fraud and much more. The same holds true for established industries such as automotive, investment management and insurance. The trick is to understand how your company interacts with the wider world and to choose debates in which you have something compelling to say.

Bond Vigilantes – the eclectic blog of M&G Investments – has been doing this for 10 years and now has a strong and loyal following. Recent blogs include the impact of hurricanes on Caribbean bonds, the Conservative Party conference and the financial impact of the abolition of slavery in 1833 (both in the UK). Its winning formula is best described by its readers:

“During a turbulent decade, Bond Vigilantes has provided insightful and often idiosyncratic commentary in an entertaining package,” says John Thornber of Andrews Gwynne. Dean Cook, an analyst with Duncan Lawrie, adds: “Fresh perspectives, variation between broad macro themes and detailed market insights, as well as a keen sense of humour, all distinguish the Vigilantes from the grey market copy I receive on a daily basis.”

Jim Leaviss, head of Retail Fixed Interest at M&G, who runs the blog, says feedback from readers keeps it sharp. “In one week alone I was accused of being both an apologist for the US Tea Party and a member of a Marxist sleeper cell,” he says. Clearly, you can’t please all of your readers all of the time, but you can keep them entertained and engaged.

Have the confidence to wade into public debate with a unique viewpoint

Embracing controversy is also about timing and confidence. When BA’s IT systems crashed in May, forcing the airline to ground all flights for several days – leaving thousands of stranded passengers all over the world – the internet was ablaze with what might have caused the IT meltdown and how BA might have prevented it. While most of the IT industry was silent – fearing to criticise a client or draw attention to its role in the data blackout – one tech CEO decided to step into the fray. David Richards of WANdisco, a Silicon-Valley Cloud-computing specialist, took the airline to task for failing to back up its data properly. His blog on the lessons of BA’s disastrous outage became an industry sensation and earned him a business lead: a phone call from BA’s head of IT.

The all-round success of Richards’ blog offers some pointers on how to inject controversy into your corporate content effectively. It was timely and grappled with a hot topic for the airline and IT industries, not to mention millions of travellers. Richards’ viewpoint was original and authoritative. And while critical of BA, he offered solutions for backing up data in real time to prevent IT meltdowns.

The rise of the CEO activist

A CEO’s personality will largely dictate how controversial or risk-averse he wants to be. But research suggests that public opinion, particularly in the United States, increasingly expects CEOs to take a stance on social issues, even when the link to their business is tenuous. As a rule, the younger the audience, the more engaged they will want CEOs to be. In the past year alone, American CEOs have spoken out against President Donald Trump’s executive order banning migrants from certain Muslim-majority countries. They resigned en masse from the President’s business advisory council in protest at Trump’s failure to condemn white supremacists. And they are under pressure to join the debate on climate change, LGBT rights, gender and pay discrimination, gun control and much more.

The criteria by which companies decide whether to stay silent or engage are clearly shifting, says Aaron Chatterji, a professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. In an interview with the Washington Post, he stated: “Silence used to be the default posture, but political polarization, Facebook and Twitter have changed that.” Chatterji warns that CEOs who take a stand risk being seen by investors as distracted or overexposed, reducing the impact of their message. As a result, CEOs need to choose the “issues you’re authentically connected to, so you might have more influence. People will take it much more seriously.”

It is often difficult to strike the right balance. Companies risk drawing fire for speaking out (witness the negative response to Audi’s gender-themed Superbowl spot) and, as Uber has discovered to its cost, for remaining silent on important issues.

Can you be too controversial?

Stirring up controversy can raise your profile, increase your reputation and engage your audience. But you need to stir the pot without letting it boil over. Research from the Wharton School of Business shows that too much controversy actually turns people off.

In When, Why, and How Controversy Causes Conversation, Jonah Berger and Zoey Chen studied online news forums to see which subjects prompted greater discussion. To their surprise, more controversial topics did not always get the biggest response. Berger and Chen suggest that this is because controversial issues provoke two conflicting feelings in us – interest and discomfort. Too much of the latter causes people to shy away from engaging with the subject. “Data from an online news forum show that controversy increases likelihood of discussion at low levels, but beyond a moderate level of controversy, additional controversy actually decreases likelihood of discussion,” the report concludes.

A few rules for bullet-proofing your controversial content

For CEOs and business leaders, speaking out on hot topics brings both risks and rewards. So here are some guidelines on how to pronounce on controversial subjects without killing your business.

  1. Be open. Look beyond the confines of your company for topics that may interest your readers, but be sure to establish a link between the issue and your company’s values or business.
  2. Be topical. Choose a subject that is being debated in your company/industry or by your stakeholders.
  3. Be original. Offer new insights into your chosen subject.
  4. Don’t be controversial for the sake of it. Your readers may not agree with your point of view, but that is OK if you can back up your arguments with facts, data and experience – your own or that of the company.
  5. In a rapidly moving story, ensure your facts are up-to-date.
  6. Look in the mirror. Make sure there are no skeletons in the closet before you put pen to paper. If your company needs to make improvements, say so before your critics do.
  7. Be entertaining. As Sam Leith says in Write to the Point: “If you make somebody laugh, you have them for life. A few years back, the not especially well-known novelist David Whitehouse tweeted: “Lance Armstrong should be applauded for riding a bike so well on drugs. I tried it once. Hit a dog and fell into the canal.” It earned him nearly 10,000 retweets.” Humour, especially the self-deprecating variety, is a good way to establish an emotional link with your readers.
  8. Get a sanity check: have your board, or trusted advisers, go over your material before publication. Are the messages and tone of voice consistent with your company’s brand?
  9. Develop a thick skin. Expect feedback or criticism from your readers. Always respond in a respectful and measured tone.
  10. Practice makes perfect. Finding your own voice sometimes takes time, but when you do, it will be authentic, authoritative and unique.

Leslie Crawford is a former comment editor of the Financial Times