controversial between security and freedom
  • 24
  • July

Should Clients Stop Being Controversial?

“To thine own self be true,” said Polonius to Hamlet in the famous Shakespeare play. When you do reputation management for a controversial client, you should know at the start of the deal that the client isn’t likely to change his or her behavior.

Anyone who has spoken their mind all their life will continue to do so. Their controversial views and speech may contribute to their reputation issues but they’re not likely to stop being who they are.

In the event that a client promises to change behavior, the reputation strategist must take care not to overpromise what will be delivered. Broken promises will be remembered far longer than years of good behavior.

An attorney representing a controversial client hounded by the news media will ameliorate as many statements as possible when talking with the public. But the client’s behavior is the issue, not the attorney’s explanations of legal rights.

And if an attorney or public relations specialist falls back on the old “words taken out of context” defense, the public will react with skepticism and disbelief. The media will push back.

In some situations, a mildly offensive comment can be glossed over with an apology or retraction. But what happens next can irrevocably change the course of a reputation campaign.

Clients Must Decide What They Will Do

The stereotype of the wealthy social villain who only needs to throw money at a problem to make it go away is popular with film and TV writers. In real life such a client must change course to avoid stimulating new controversy and rebuke.

The reputation strategist can be blunt with intermediaries such as PR specialists and attorneys. “If the client would just not say these things any we can move forward,” is a frequent thought.

Whether your job is to propose or find solutions, a productive strategy begins with a clear definition of what will not change. Knowing how the client will be regardless of what happens should set clear boundaries for all future strategies and proposals.

Reputation strategists should not be critical or argumentative. They must adapt to the situation as it exists. If a client is indecisive about future behavior, or non-committal, everyone else must adopt a flexible approach to managing the client’s reputation.

Deflection Does Not Help Reputation Management

When speaking with the media and the public representatives sometimes fall back on a deflection to avoid answering questions – or accusations – it’s not appropriate for them to respond to. While this is the best possible defense for an impossible situation it’s not going to work for online reputation management.

Whether on social media or the web, if a reputation strategy teases the reader with a hint of a direct response that never comes, the teasing content becomes just another point of contention that harms the client’s reputation.

People may shrug off a PR specialist’s response to a reporter’s awkward, probing question in a few days. But if the attempt to deflect is published in semi-permanent form on the web or social media, people will comment on it and link to it repeatedly.

Although news articles calling attention to attempts to deflect scrutiny may remain on the web and cite on social media, public interest in them tends to quickly die down. The comments are still there but they are less likely to draw the wrath of hostile parties than the deflective language used in content controlled by a client or client representative.

Reputation Strategies Work Best with Neutral Information

A reputation strategy need not directly address any controversial activity or comments from a client. Instead, the strategy can emphasize positive activity and public statements.

The remorseful client strategy embraces acknowledgment, apologetic behavior, and whatever helps to atone for past grievances.

That strategy doesn’t work for a client who continues to say or do what they feel they are free to do.

There must be two lines of communication: the designated representative addresses the ongoing controversy; the reputation strategist acts as if there is no controversy and moves forward with non-controversial information.

Reputation Management Should Avoid Hostility and Confrontation

If attacks on a good reputation are clearly false and defamatory then a direct defense is obviously called for. The online reputation campaign can acknowledge the false claims but should refrain from anything other than presenting verifiable facts and quoting defensible statements of denial.

Public sentiment rarely rallies around the controversial client. The more impassioned or haughty a defense becomes the more it alienates potential good will in the community. This is a strategy best left to a real-time manager such as a PR specialist or attorney.

Web and social media content should be impeccable except for its lack of controversiality.

A Micromanaging Client May Make Things Worse

While it goes without saying that a micromanager can disrupt any public relations strategy, it is usually a mistake to pass the micromanagement on to the online reputation team.

The PR specialist or attorney should work with the team directly to identify important assets and shape strategy. But that process should be filtered or shielded as much as possible from a client who lacks knowledge of the implications of mismanaged online reputation.

The online campaign should be managed and reported to the client as a background process that is part of a larger strategy. An online reputation management team cannot replace ongoing public image management and engagement. Their value is best leveraged in clear, well-defined steps that don’t require or invite micromanagement.

Some People Seek Controversy for their Own Reasons

It would be a rare reputation management campaign that sought to stimulate controversy but it has been done. Successful campaigns of this nature favor tolerated controversial views and behaviors, such as political campaigns where two parties or rival candidates call out each other’s failings.

Political campaigns rarely need true reputation management because they only last a few months or a year at most.

An activist who seeks attention for a cause may lack sufficient reputation to create the level of controversy desired. Such a client might be a good candidate for an online reputation campaign that highlights unusual, contrarian points of view.

These types of campaigns should be undertaken with clear goals in mind. Online reputation assets should be expected to last for years. They may be used by people with unexpected goals and motivations in future commentary and reporting.

The team should ask itself, what will benefit the client in 2 to 5 years when this content becomes relevant to an unanticipated news story?

Creating controversy on the Internet is not an ephemeral action. As the popular saying goes, once it’s out on the Internet, it’s out there forever. Your client may be comfortable publishing hostile or confrontational social media or web content today, but in 20 years it could cost him or her a great deal.

It’s Your Job to Separate the Wheat from the Chaff

A reputation management strategist can make these decisions for you and your client, but should they?

Who knows your client’s long-term aspirations better?

No one can foresee all ends but it’s easier for online reputation teams to manage low-key priorities. Their work takes time and the more frequently they must adjust their strategies to compensate for new hostility and confrontation, the longer it will take them to meet their assigned objectives.

Their work may also be easily undone by a hostile party if their content is too closely tied to supporting, explaining, or defending a client’s behavior.

The wheat for the reputation strategist is often least likely to be what the client prefers. A client’s wheat is often a strategist’s chaff.

There may be no way to differentiate between what the client is doing and the reputation they want to build, but it’s always better to focus on the least controversial and hostile points of conversation.


Client reputation management demands good client management. If the person or organization needing reputation assistance is in conflict with the strategies being used those strategies will be ineffective.

No one should blame the client for being who he or she is. Some people are very passionate and their passions don’t always win friends and influence people. A reputation campaign may be tasked with making those passionate views and activities more palatable, or less offensive to a potentially hostile public.

The public relations team must decide where the balance is to be struck and provide consistent guidance to the reputation team. When there is little or no consistency in the guidance there won’t be any consistency in the strategies or their executions.

It should be everyone’s goal to avoid restarting a campaign as much as possible. When clients see the benefit to themselves of allowing reputation campaigns to mature and bear fruit, they tend to direct their controversial moments in other directions. It’s never an easy job but keeping the conflict outside of the process makes the job more rewarding for everyone. Your clients will appreciate the efficient professionalism of your teams as they accomplish their goals.

Related Posts