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controversial content for PR and marketingBrands traditionally avoid controversy. By its definition, controversy sparks disagreement and argument. Yet winning the customer’s attention becomes increasingly challenging as blog posts, articles and videos saturate the internet and overwhelm viewers. Some companies publish controversial articles to rise above the crowded field of competitors. While the strategy often works, it also poses significant risks. Brands may get attention, but not the kind of attention they desire. A controversial stance may cause engagement rates to spike yet may not improve brand sentiment or help gain sales leads. It may accomplish exactly the reverse. It may offend a significant portion of the target audience.

Brands can publish controversial content and avoid reputational damage by following these practices.

Scrutinize your audiences, including both your main and secondary audiences, to predict their reactions. Pepsi’s commercial with Kendall Jenner exemplifies what can happen from lack of audience research, says Pratik Dholakiya, founder of The 20 Media, a content marketing agency. Pepsi wanted to show its support for the Black Lives Matter movement but offended its audience because it didn’t consider the message from various angles and the viewpoints of different audience segments, Dholakiya writes for Convince & Convert.

Consider your brand’s image. Customers don’t expect or want some companies to address controversial topics. Find if competitors or similar organizations have published controversial content and determine if it was effective for them through competitive intelligence.

Support claims. Include a citation or link to a source for each fact or claim. The best sources are credible, recent and familiar to readers. Testimonials from customers, clients or employees can supplement your data.

Avoid controversy for the sake of controversy. That type of content provides no business benefit. Worse, viewers may perceive the company as gimmicky or opportunistic for trying to take advantage of shock value. Effective controversial content has a positive relationship to the brand, explains Andrea Lehr, brand relationship strategist at Frac.tl. For instance, in the Hotel Hygiene Exposed campaign for Travelmath, Frac.tl gathered 36 samples from various surfaces at nine hotels and sent samples to a third-party lab. Lab analysis found that the supposedly best hotels were the dirtiest. The contrarian results relate to Travelmath’s service of finding hotels for travelers.

Remain respectful. Don’t stoop to mud-slinging, warns the ShoutMeLoud blog run by Harsh Agrawal.  Question the thoughts of others, not their ethics or morality. Avoid appearing arrogant. The best arguments offer a thorough exploration of the subject with fair, balanced coverage. They’re well-researched, well-structured, thoughtful and well-written.

Don’t be too controversial. Research by marketing professors Jonah Berger and Zoey Chen revealed that low-level controversy encourages discussions but that too much controversy discourages engagement. “Companies should realize that a little provocativeness goes a long way. There’s virtually no scenario in which they stand to gain by stirring up highly charged emotions—and there’s a big downside to crossing the line,” the professors write in Harvard Business Review.

Monitor reactions. Monitor reactions on traditional and social media with a media monitoring service. When seeking a media monitoring tool, select a service that covers all media – print, broadcast, online, social – in one integrated dashboard. Because swift responses are essential, it’s crucial to use a service that can send automated email alerts when your brand, keywords or controversial content piece is mentioned. Research indicates that customers expect a response within 24 hours, and responding to comments about a controversial article is especially important. How you respond and how promptly you respond may have just as much import as the original article.

Measure the impact. Media measurement can gauge the effectiveness of publishing on controversial topics over time by reporting changes in engagement rates, brand sentiment, share of voice and other PR measurement metrics.

Bottom Line: Controversial stances can gain customers’ attention, increase engagement and improve brand awareness of your brand better than more mundane types of content. But contentious, divisive articles can easily fall flat or even damage PR and marketing efforts. Brands walk a fine line when they embrace controversy.

William J. Comcowich founded and served as CEO of CyberAlert LLC, the predecessor of Glean.info. He is currently serving as Interim CEO and member of the Board of Directors. Glean.info provides customized media monitoring, measurement and analytics solutions across all types of traditional and social media.